At The
Where General Counsel and Law Firms Connect

Battling Law’s Second Language

Posted in Law firm practices

Chalkboard FeminenglishAmericans are derided in foreign cultures because so few of us speak a “foreign” language. We simply figure that in light of America’s overwhelming economic, political and cultural power, we are entitled to demand that everyone around the world – particularly lawyers, business people and airline pilots — speak to us Americans in the way that is most convenient to us.  “Be reasonable,” we insist. “Say it our way.” And we marginalize those who don’t, consigning them to the realm of subtitles.

Yet a huge percentage of Americans do speak – actually are forced to speak — a second language, and the irony is that they are both compelled to speak it and yet are ridiculed for speaking it. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

What’s That You Say?

We speak, of course, of a language we might call Deferential English. Actually, because our national second language is so predominately expressed in the dialects and manners expected of the gentle sex, let us propose a more honest designation: Feminenglish.

This is the language imposed by men – with a wink, a steel fist (whether in a velvet glove or not) and feigned innocence – mostly on women, at least in the legal and business world.  While it may sound a lot like “regular” English, Feminenglish has a distinct and distinctive vocabulary, grammar, syntax, volume, gestures, mannerisms, timbre, and intonation. It is the dialect spoken by the legal and business world’s women. Often most notable in group meetings (The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri describes “Women in a Meeting” as a “language of its own”), Feminenglish is no less common, and no less damaging in one-on-one male-female interactions.

Feminenglish is mediated discourse, a dialect that requires women to worry about dodging a bullet even as they try to make a point. It is the language of self-defense, of frustrated communication, of lost and stolen ideas, of stymied career progression…of resentment. It is a language that both reflects and perpetuates a profound socio-cultural imbalance of power – both in the legal profession and elsewhere.

Tellin’ It Like It Isn’t

If business English – essentially masculine English — is the language of power and dominance, the language spoken at the table by those who have won a seat at the table, Feminenglish is the language of deference to power; it is the dialect of circumscribed authority, of the overwhelming importance of not giving offense, lest one be humiliated, criticized, marginalized, ostracized or simply ignored in the course of important communications.

Let’s be clear: Feminenglish is a seriously compromised mode of communication. The effect of Feminenglish is to suck the energy out of communication content. To dilute the force of ideas in a fog of understatement and a veneer of apology. To compel oblique circumlocution and discourage a powerful thinker from claiming individual ownership of their intellectual currency. It’s not hard to understand why, by and large, even Feminenglish’s most adroit speakers don’t like Feminenglish.

Feminenglish perpetuates unproductive gender stereotypes. It’s also a huge waste: To the extent it encourages men to discount the contributions of women – to interrupt them, to appropriate their ideas, to demean them as weak, indecisive or passive – it reflects a huge disincentive for women of enormous talent to stand and deliver.  Strong women who do not wish to be forced to speak Feminenglish have the option to vote with their feet.  And they are, marching en masse out of law firms, out of legal departments, out of the legal profession altogether.

But They Do It

Other languages – German and French come to mind – also have multiple grammatical cases depending on who is speaking and who is spoken to, but they use variations in grammar, declension and conjugation to reinforce cultural norms of formality/informality and relative intimacy – irrespective of gender.  To our knowledge, the only formally “gendered language” where men speak like men and women speak like women is Japanese – not surprising in a culture based on its canons of deference, as well as the subservient status it has historically imposed upon women.

Supposedly those qualified to practice law speak their own arcane second language: Legalspeak. This is a gender-neutral language based on competency, a language that communicates mastery of subject-matter expertise, breadth of knowledge and business savvy and astute legal judgment. Supposedly Legalspeak is what clients are paying law firms for, the tongue in-house lawyers are salaried to speak. In the real world of interpersonal communication, however, all too often Feminenglish trumps Legalspeak.

What Are You Talking About?

It’s possible that you have read this far without a flash of recognition going off, particularly if you are of the male persuasion.  If so, quickly convene a group of women – any size group – and ask, “How many of you have heard described as ‘aggressive’ in women the same behaviors that are described as ‘assertive’ in men?  Raise your hands.”  We guarantee that the uplifted arms will block out the sun. For those of you in denial, this should serve as a practical demonstration that we are not whistling Dixie here.

Still can’t imagine what Feminenglish sounds like?  Here’s a couple of examples, courtesy of Alexandra Petri’s recent Washington Post article, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting:”

“Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Woman in a meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just – I really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would be just awful, you know?  That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

“I have a dream today!”

Woman in a meeting:  “I’m sorry, I just had this idea – it’s probably crazy, but – look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here – I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

 We’re Baaack

You may ask why a couple of bloggers best known for expertise in Legal Project Management (LPM) have chosen to wade into the murky swamp of intergender dynamics.  Simple.  LPM is a discipline with a dual purpose: better legal service delivery and improved law firm-client relationships.  LPM promotes greater efficiency and effectiveness , but it is not just about methods and systems and budgets and metrics. LPM also is a communication engine, a set of practical protocols that drives better interactions. Anything that impedes clear and candid communication erodes efficiency and fosters discord is anathema to LPM, and that certainly includes Feminenglish.

In 2015, we published a series of posts about social science research demonstrating the damaging impact of Manterruption and Bropropriation, that is, the tendency of men to interrupt women in group communications and appropriate their ideas and insights as their own. Obviously, these communication habits foster Feminenglish and operate as performance disincentives.  We quoted researcher Dr. Arin Reeves: “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted. If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?” [emphasis added]

We took a lot of heat for those posts (“When did you become such whining feminists?”), but we also got an avalanche of thank you notes.  And friends, we’re at it again, because when it comes to Feminenglish, it is irresponsible – perhaps immoral – to let sleeping dogs lie.  In our next several posts in this series, we’re going to look first at how Feminenglish is spoken and then explore how to escape its debilitating grasp.

More important, we are asking for your help. We’re trying to open up discourse on this subject.  In future posts, we will share examples (anonymously, if preferred), in order to shine a light on the problem and support solutions to the current asymmetry in communications. Please share your experience with us. We’re happy to provide airtime, and we are all ears.

Please tune in for subsequent posts in this series.


© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.