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5 Habits Professional Women Should Break

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Tuesday, June 20th, 2017
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Smiling women standing in circle
Photo: huffingtonpost

1. Apologizing

This one is probably something that could be applied to all women everywhere, but especially in a professional realm. Women, for whatever reason, feel compelled to say, “I’m sorry!” for a lot of things that don’t warrant an apology, especially when it comes to asking clarifying questions and/or asking for something we know you need. Here are times that I have apologized when I could have skipped it:

Someone at the other end of a board table was speaking so softly that none of the folks at the other end could hear a word he was saying: “Sorry, could you speak up a little bit? Thanks so much! Sorry about that!”

I once didn’t receive an e-mail that the rest of my team received, so I wrote the following e-mail to my manager: “Hey there – sorry to bug you, but I think I’m missing the e-mail detailing XYZ. Would you mind sending it along?”

If you go back and read those interactions without the apology, they are just as polite, but not as self-effacing. In both those situations, I was completely within my rights to ask the question I was asking, but, in both, felt the need to apologize in order to soften the question somehow.  We think apologizing helps us look less demanding, but it ends up giving the impression that we think our very presence is an inconvenience to someone. Monitor yourself this week and just notice how many times you apologize when you don’t have to. It’s an interesting experiment.

2. Saying, “To be honest…” 

In the same way that unnecessary apologizing is language that gives an impression opposite from the one we hope to give off, saying, “To be honest,” before you start a sentence achieves a similar negative outcome.

Using, “To be honest,” or “Frankly,” or “Honestly,” or “If I’m telling the truth here,” as a pre-cursor to giving your opinion will subtly and subconsciously make the listener think that everything else you’ve said in your conversation with them has NOT been “honest” or “frank” or “truthful.”

It seems like, “To be honest,” gets used most often when a person is trying to buy time because they aren’t sure what they want to say. I am totally guilty of this, so in the past couple of years, I’ve tried to be more comfortable with silence.

For example, if someone asks me something and I feel that panic of not having an instant answer ready, I intentionally take a deep breath, think on it, and then respond. There is power in silence that we tend to give away by filling that silence with fluff like, “To be honest;” when, in reality, that kind of fluff makes whatever we say next sound less authoritative.

3. Using “just” in e-mails

Ellen Petry Leanse of Google wrote a super compelling and widely-read article about women using the word “just” in e-mails or in conversation.

Basically, her thesis was that women use “just” as a “permission word.” I’ll let her take it from here:

“I just wanted to check in on …”

“Just wondering if you’d decided between …”

“If you can just give me an answer, then …”

“I’m just following up on …”

I started paying attention, at work and beyond. It didn’t take long to sense something I hadn’t noticed before: Women used “just” more often than men.

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that just didn’t make sense.

When I read this article, I started vigilantly monitoring my use of “just,” and found out that I use it ALL THE TIME. In e-mails, in conversation – it’s everywhere. See if you notice the same thing.

4. Dressing for the job you have

Color me a big anti-feminist, individuality-squashing 1950’s man, but I’m telling you: women are more guilty than men of dressing inappropriately for work.

Granted, men only have like three options that they get to mix and match, which is totally unfair and makes things way easier for them, but I digress.

When getting ready for work in the morning, the questions that I started asking myself were:

1. Would I be uncomfortable bending down in this top?  2. Would I be uncomfortable sitting down in this skirt?  3. Is this an outfit that the highest ranking person in my organization would be proud to see me wearing?

Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely not always followed those rules perfectly. But eventually, after lots of trial and error, I figured out that it is worth the extra effort on the front end of getting ready to feel 100% comfortable in my clothes, rather than throwing something on and rushing out the door only to find that my top is way lower-cut than I thought. Once, I had to use the folder I was given in a board meeting as a shield for my legs because the skirt I’d chosen in a rush was WAY too short when I sat down. It was all I could think about the entire day.

There has been a huge decline in the sales of places like GAP, Ann Taylor, J. Crew, and Banana Republic. Why? Because professional women are masters of high-low fashion. What does that mean? That young women buy a few staple pieces from Nordstrom Rack or Saks Off Fifth, then fill the rest of their wardrobes in with Forever 21.

Not inherently a bad thing, but it does get tricky if tops that would work on a Saturday night are also being worn to the office. And it usually means that we don’t function at our very best, because we’re self-conscious about what we have on. My dad always says, “If you’re going to fidget with your clothes all day, wear something else.”

5. Feeling like you owe anyone an explanation about your personal choices

People, particularly older men, tend to have a few default questions for their younger, female co-workers.

“So, do you have a boyfriend?” “Meet anyone interesting?” “You’ve been dating forever! When are you guys getting engaged?”  “Thinking about having children soon?”

Most often, these questions are born out of pure innocence. The people asking them aren’t trying to be invasive or rude — usually, they’re just not quite sure what to say, but they want to appear interested in us as people. And that’s totally harmless.

But it can feel a little too personal, or even judgmental, when people with whom we haven’t developed that sort of relationship start asking these questions. It’s possible that the real answers are:

“I just broke up with someone.”“No, and I’m really having a hard time being single.” “This is a sensitive subject for me, and I don’t want to talk about this.” “I’m having fertility issues and I might just start crying right here on the spot.” 

If you find yourself in a situation like this, where you’re being asked a question that you really don’t want to answer, YOU DON’T HAVE TO ANSWER IT. It’s that simple. You don’t owe anyone an explanation about your personal life or choices, unless you actually want to engage in that conversation.

You have every right to politely re-route the topic. Ex:

Q. “So, do you have a boyfriend?”  A. “Right now I’m really focused on work! Hey, tell me more about this project you mentioned…”

Q. “Meet anyone interesting?”  A. “There are so many interesting people – I feel really lucky to work here. Remind me – how did you get started with the company?”

Q. “You’ve been dating forever! When are you guys getting engaged?”  A. “We’ve been dating a while, it’s true! I really love him/her and I’m pumped to see where the relationship is going. Meanwhile, I needed some clarity about this e-mail…”

Q. “Thinking about having children soon?”  A. “We’re enjoying time with each other right now. Really quickly – can I ask your advice on something? I’m not sure how to proceed with this client.”

Easy, polite, respectful. Those responses don’t assume the person asking is nosey, but they do send the message that you aren’t interested in discussing that subject any further.

Shoutout to all my working ladies who are kicking ass every day!! Keep it going, girls!

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