Why Do We Sugarcoat the Way We Communicate?


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By Sarah Horowitz

Once I started putting smiley faces at the end of work emails, I knew something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Like so many people in the workforce, I spend most of my 9-to-5 sending emails. In college, I barely texted, let alone sat down to write an email, and found communication far more effective in person, preferably over coffee or food. So, when I first found myself chained to a desk, my fingertips glued to a plastic keyboard, the only option I had was to dive in head first. And with no trepidation, I absolutely did.

The emails I spewed out into the hazy net varied from friendly reminders to not-so-subtle condemnations. With a couple clicks of my keyboard and an artful flourish of my mouse, I could target an issue and execute a solution in under a minute, and in 50 words or less. I loved the feeling—until my mid-year review came along.

“You are an amazing worker, but your emails come off too unfriendly,” said my boss. “You have to be more approachable.” And there it was, the fear all women have deep inside of them, bubbling up to the surface and rearing its ugly head—the fear of not being liked. Immediately, I started editing my emails, or rather, sugarcoating them. I frosted them with exclamation points, dusted them with unnecessary question marks, and sprinkled them liberally with an unhealthy dose of smiley faces. It was sugar overload, and I was left with the nauseous and shameful feeling that I usually get after eating too many Snickers bars.  

Is there a way for women to communicate effectively in the workplace that is both powerful and likeable? More importantly, can we do this in a male-dominated world?

But what else could I do? That insecure voice inside instructed me to “play nice,” to be “sweet,” and I couldn’t help but obey. It seems that women start hearing that voice from childhood, and this cultural conditioning has raised us to communicate in a very specific way. We have turned our volume down and turned our pitch up. We have added question marks to the ends of statements we know we are correct, and inserted giggles to seem less threatening. We have been raised to appease others, to seem likeable, caring, accommodating, and, most importantly, submissive. And, when a woman goes against these rules, the nation is shocked, a recent example being Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. Her powerful voice was described as “shreaky” and her commanding authority deemed “nasty.”

When a man sends a strongly worded, direct email to his team, he is lauded as an organized, determined, and efficient leader. But when a woman sends the same email, she is referred to as demanding and authoritative, even bitchy. And because our culture has instilled a fear of social rejection into women, this kind of feedback elicits an immediate submission. I watched myself as I metaphorically crouched into a ball and displayed my obedience. Why did I just put double exclamation points after that sentence? Why did I type a question mark after that statement when I know it to be correct? Why in the fuck did I just put a smiley face after “please let me know”??

I have tried to make my emails more “friendly” and “approachable,” but in doing so I feel as if I lose my power and my intelligence. I am smarter than these emails, and the fact that I need to belittle myself so as not to offend others seems absurd, especially because men don’t have to walk this same fine line. As a woman, I am expected to be empathetic, accommodating, and submissive, but as a high-achiever at work, I am encourage to be authoritative, concise, and dominant. These two stereotypes fight fiercely against each other, and conclude in an internal push-and-pull that forces us to fall. I can’t seem to shake the sexist bias our culture has ascribed to me, but I also can’t seem to change the male-centric expectations revered in the workplace. Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist and best-selling author, labels this paradox a “double bind” for woman in authority. Women are deemed ineffective and weak if they speak in ways our culture expects them to, yet labeled as aggressive and domineering if they speak in ways associated with authority.

I feel as if I am left with two options: to be liked and not respected, or to be disliked and effective. I have leaned toward the former, as have others, and this societal trend has not gone unnoticed. Essayist Sloane Crosley and comedian Amy Schumer have dedicated opinion pieces and comedy sketches toward the overuse of the word “sorry” by women, shedding light on our propensity to minimize our authority in the workplace, and this movement has found its way online too. “Just Not Sorry,” a Google Chrome plug-in created by Tami Reiss of Cyrus Innovation, scans a drafted email and highlights keywords and phrases that sabotage a woman’s authority and result in subtle messages of subordination. These phrases include “sorry,” “just,” “I think,” and “I’m no expert.” While this movement has received positive support from many activists, there are others who believe it causes women to criticize their own voice and effectively silences them. Others believe this minimizes the importance of politeness in the workplace, and too highly reveres authoritarian, discourteous language.

I am now at a standstill, my fingers hovering over the keys. Is there a way for women to communicate effectively in the workplace that is both powerful and likeable? More importantly, can we do this in a male-dominated world? I am done forcing myself to sound submissive in order to seem more approachable, and am done having to deal with the negative consequences of those action, consequences men will never have to face. I want to be efficient, authoritative, and powerful while also receiving the approval and respect of my peers.

Is this possible? Let me know☺


Sarah Horowitz is a dedicated foodie and feminist living in Brooklyn. Founder and president of a campus food club and YouTube cooking series, Sarah continues her culinary journey in the “real world” as a freelancer and blogger. Her new food blog focuses on therapy through cooking. She spends her free time running (and getting lost) in Prospect Park, recreating Great British Bake Off showstoppers, and fulfilling her ambitious feminist agenda.


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