Decoding Limiting Language

“You’re so bossy!”

After a recent workshop and during an incredibly robust Q&A, one of the female participants began a question by relating an encounter with a co-worker. Actually, it was a male subordinate, someone that she had supervisory capacity over. She had reminded him of a looming deadline she was concerned that he wasn’t going to meet. His bristly response was, “You’re so bossy!” Her Q&A question was, how do we as women in business, respond to statements like this? Good question.

The answer to that question lies in answering a couple of related questions.

  1. Would he have used the word “bossy” to a male supervisor? OF COURSE NOT.

  2. What did he really mean? He meant, “I’M UNCOMFORTABLE WITH YOU HAVING EFFECTIVE POWER OVER ME, THOUGH I CANNOT ADMIT IT, SO I’M GOING TO PUT YOU IN YOUR PLACE BY USING LANGUAGE THAT IS DERISIVE AND CHILDISH.”

Unlike French of Spanish, the English language is not particularly gendered. However, some studies point to words that are gender-biased or gender-weighted, particularly in job descriptions and advertisements. Much of that is unconscious bias and should be addressed, though that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Women understand coded language. We’ve been dealing with it literally, forever. We understand that when a “bossy” or “aggressive” is tossed our way, the speaker wants to say “bitch.” We get that when we’re referred to as “honey,” “babe” or “sweetie” by a male co-worker or the guy ringing us out at the tire repair store, we’re being infantilized and put in a box. We get it. 

Here’s how I, and the rest of the participants answered the “bossy” question: You turn it back around to the speaker. You ask him, 

“What do you mean by “bossy/aggressive/demanding?” Do you mean someone who is in charge? Do you mean someone who knows what’s required to get the job done?” 

Yes, I know it’s a REALLY uncomfortable conversation to have, for both of you, but it’s how progress is made. It’s how more productive, diverse cultures are crafted. It’s what leaders do. We have to have tough conversations well. It’s time to stop gritting our teeth and accepting the words that are coded to make us feel small and less than and actually have those conversations.

You can do it one conversation at a time.

LB Adams is the Founder of Practical Dramatics, and headquartered in Charleston, SC.  Her company provides spectacular training events that utilize theatre strategies to help humans grow more profitable conversations with other humans, To learn more about growing profitable conversations, reach out to us at 843-771-0753.