Men Use 'Passive' Language, Too — We Just Judge Women More

Young woman on phone


Pooja Hoffman
Pooja Hoffman

The debate about the difference in communication styles between men and women is one for the ages, as discussed in books ranging from "Men Are From Mars" to "Lean In". There is one unifying thread between these disparate texts — that the use of passive language like “I think” or “sorry," especially by women, can hold you back from progressing in your career. This idea has gained so much steam that there’s even a Gmail plugin, Just Not Sorry, that underlines passive words in emails that may undermine their author's message. 

These books, articles, and tools have fueled the assumption that women need to consciously limit the use of passive language (and even their use of emojis) if they want to be taken seriously and get ahead in the office. However, a new report by Hive, a project management and collaboration platform, is dispelling the myth that women use more passive language than men.

After analyzing messages sent from more than 3,000 women and men in Hive’s workspaces, the report found that men say “thanks” more often, and use “sorry”, “please”, and, “I think” almost as frequently as women. While the data did show that women use emojis and exclamation points more often, it was only slightly more often than men.

Knowing that we communicate the same is an amazing sanity check for women, but it doesn’t change the fact that women still suffer from inequality in the workplace. There are gendered gaps in pay and title, and data from McKinsey shows that both the number and the percentage of women tapers off dramatically in leadership roles.

With language patterns so similar across genders, businesses need to start worrying more about how women’s words and contributions are perceived rather than how they are delivered. 

While changing these perceptions will take time, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are three actionable steps women can take today while we wait for society to catch up: 

1. Be authentic. 

Studies have shown that diversity of thought and experiences is crucial for achieving high-performing teams. If groupthink is so detrimental, why are we trying to “group speak”? The most important aspect of communication is authenticity. The best leaders are respected because they are genuine — don’t change who you are to fit a stereotypical mold. Rather than try and imitate others, find what strength looks like in your personal communication style.

2. Speak out for other women. 

As the famous name switching experiment in emails showed us, people are often unaware of their gendered biases. Helping recognize and elevate other women around you and ensure their contributions are noticed can help combat these biases, and create a culture where more women become confident to showcase their accomplishments.

3. Avoid negative gendered descriptors. 

From Debbie Downers and Negative Nancys to Drama Queens and Mean Girls, there is an abundance of negative associations that are attributed to women. Women can help combat these associations by eliminating these phrases from our vocabulary.