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No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words.

With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence.

I think the reason for verbal policing, and similar forms, flows from the “male as default” model we have in our heads. The majority, the power-brokers, are our reference point. Their actions define what they are. Minorities, those with lesser power, are defined by how they differ from that default. Hence women become “people plus dresses“.

During an item in which the comedian Viv Groskop discussed her new show about women’s habit of constantly saying sorry, another guest, the linguist Louise Mullany, pointed out that the stereotype of women constantly saying sorry has not been borne out by research. But the presenter and Groskop just brushed this aside. Everyone knows that women ‘over-apologize’. The question is—to quote the trailer on the programme’s website—‘why do women do it, and how can they stop?’

Logic and reason have no bearing on this, it’s just a side-effect of being a social species obsessed with ranking one another.

What this advice boils down to is ‘talk like a man’. The writer doesn’t even try to argue that there’s some inherent reason to prefer ‘less body language’ (whatever that means) to more. It’s preferable simply because it’s what men are said to do. Men are more successful in the workplace, so if women want to emulate their success, the trick is to mimic their behaviour.

Even if this behaviour was purely biological and burned into us, that doesn’t make it morally good. Should we continue to pump out children without limit and face the inevitable famines, or scale things back and avoid shortage? The naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy; if we can improve our lot, we should.

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. […]

It bothers me that even feminists don’t seem to see the force of this analogy. When feminists encounter articles with headlines like ‘Are you eating too much fruit?’ or ‘Why implants are the new Botox’, they know they are in the presence of Beauty Myth bullshit, whose purpose is to make women feel bad about themselves. Feminists do not share those articles approvingly on Facebook. Yet a high proportion of my feminist acquaintance did share Leanse’s ‘just’ piece, and some of them shared the Jezebel commentary which appeared under the headline ‘Women, stop saying “just” so much, it makes you sound like children’. An article headed ‘Women, stop eating so much fruit, it makes you put on weight’ would immediately have raised their hackles. So why was the Jezebel piece acceptable?

Nor should we think that just because we carry a label, we live up to it. Feminists may be less sexist than the general population, but we must never assume we’re free of all sexism by default.

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