woman thinking

A recent New York Times opinion piece claimed that women apologize all the time – even when something is not their fault. It’s known as “tentative” or “indirect” speech, when people – usually women – start their sentences with “I’m sorry” or “If you don’t mind.” Is this something you do? Have you tried to change the way you speak – or do you use it to your advantage? We’ll dig into the nuances of tentative speech… if you don’t mind us doing that.

I’m Sorry, But May We Discuss Tentative Speech? 6 November,2015forum

Robin Lakoff, UC Berkeley professor emerita in linguistics
Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University professor of linguistics
Cristen Conger, co-creator and host of "Stuff Mom Never Told You"

  • Paul
    • thucy

      That was a pretty interesting article, thanks for linking it.

      I still really dislike tentative speech (although I use it more than I would like here in California, where it often seems almost mandatory for women) but I’m intrigued by the possibility that millennials view the style more forgivingly.

      I suspect that much of my desire for a particularly straightforward style is, simply and sadly, out of date.

      It seems to me much of what is appealing about American culture is the freedom to speak directly, and with certainty. And to listen carefully as those who might disagree also get their chance to speak directly and with certainty. There is a certain idealism and sincerity to it, two qualities that in boom-time California, appear to be seriously missing.

      • Peter

        Yes, this is definitely culture-dependent, and that needs to be said. In England, men as well as women use this “tentative, indirect” speech, but they’re nothing compared with some other places like parts of East Asia where it’s not just the start of sentences but the whole communication that’s apologetic and indirect, leaving you wondering what they’re really trying to tell you.

  • Reed

    Why cannot these timid Earth women be more like Klingons?

    We have an old Klingon proverb, bIQapqu’meHtarDaSop ‘e’ DatIvnIS. meaning: To really succeed, you must enjoy eating poison.

    It is true in all cultures. Qapla’!

  • Peter

    Glad to see that Deborah Tannen will be one of your guests, because she made us aware that when women say “I’m sorry”, it is often not intended as an apology, but instead what she calls “taking into account the presence of another person”, and men often fail to understand this.

    • Paul

      Agreed. In that context it’s intended as a gesture of empathy.

  • And

    This is so true. Sad that most people only listen to how something is said, and not the content. I always complain that my customers never take my advice, and it’s because of the wimpy way I say it. Of course the converse is also true: Persuasive speakers can make people take bad advice.

  • John

    My experience with people of any gender who are so busy being strong that they have little or no capacity to apologize or be tentative is the greater offense. It is just arrogant, bossy, rude or, (to use tentative speech) perhaps, covers a deep seeded fear of being weak.

  • Lea
  • Gee Whiz

    I find myself introducing my ideas with “I think” or “I feel” whereas men generally launch into their input without introduction. In the ’70’s, it was taught that this was a way of expressing oneself without threatening others, allowing the more tentative to join. Now that assertiveness or even aggression is rewarded, ideas that are put forward like a proverbial foot in the door is heard over others, and often the more thoughtful keep silent.

  • Chris OConnell

    I thought I’d take this opportunity to say that I love the way Jill Abramson talks. I call it an urban drawl, or maybe a Northern drawl.

  • Cathy

    I definitely fall into this category of apologizing too much. However, many times I do mean it if I felt I’ve been rude and felt the other person might feel uneasy. And then there are times where I know if I apologize it will work to my advantage. For example, I just recently had a situation where this was well applied. A friend and I were trying to gather some information from a school. My friend is polite and assertive. She was given a more curt response to her questions. I, on the other hand, used a more passive approach to get the same information. I was greeted warmly and received the information we were both trying to gather. I am certain if my friend was a man, this would have been a non-issue.

  • Noelle

    and those who have vocal fry sound even less authoritative

  • Gee Whiz

    One more thing, the converse of the ‘I’m sorry’, is answering all yes/no questions with ‘absolutely’. The overuse of this response – primarily by women being interviewed on air – is an attempt to show confidence. A simple ‘yes’ is sufficient and more definitive.

    • Paul

      Absolutely – but I think it’s attributable to both men & women alike. Q.E.D.

  • Tibbs

    A guest suggested that some “sorry”s are really meant as “I’m sorry that happened”… I’m curious what your guests may suggest is a better way to express sympathy/empathy/pity when you want to acknowledge someone else’s misfortune.

    • Lauri SoJourner

      I’ve heard the suggestion, “I hate that for you.”

    • geraldfnord

      It can also be a simple expression of Canadian pride.

  • MarTierraySol

    I am a young professional female. I do not use tentative speech, I wonder if this is because English is my second language. I have been told by my peers that I am “unapologetic”, “tenacious” and even “aggressive”. It was until recently that I realized it was because I do not use tentative speech. I am starting to believe that I must change so I can advance in my career, being perceived as “aggressive” maybe be hindering my opportunities. Any advise??

    • Winjas

      This happened to me in my career and life, to the point my brother gave me the nickname, Primadonna. It took me almost 30 years to realize that I was just being clear and direct. Sadly, I became more tentative, and even more sadly, it worked. I was told it “softened” me. And trust me, I’m not aggressive, I was just born with stronger vocal cords. However, it did help in my career.

      • MarTierraySol

        Winjas, Thank you for sharing your experience, you have corroborated what I suspected. I really do not like tentative speech but I also realize that my assertive, direct speech may be having a negative impact on my career advancement. Perhaps it is time to become more tentative, as conforming as that seems…

    • amyj1276

      I recommend reading “Lean In”. Sandberg talks a lot about the covert and even subconscious sexism in the modern corporate world whereby women have to pretend to be “feminine” (and everything that that entails) in order to get ahead.

      • MarTierraySol

        Thank you, amyj1276, Sandberg’s book is in my ‘to read’ list, I will move it to the top and start reading it sooner than later!

  • trite

    And then there is the put-down use of “sorry” which is used by people of both sexes in Britain.

  • Cm MacIntosh

    Just the topic makes me laugh and cringe together. As a woman who was raised in Britain, it’s a double whammy. I am probably better now than when I was young, but at times men have complained about my habit of saying ‘sorry’ for absolutely everything, from every missed shot on the tennis court to valid interruption or comment in disagreement. I am, btw, a pretty opinionated person and far from a “shrinking violet”. I do try to be less tentative but it is ingrained. I agree with Cathy that “you catch more flies with honey” when trying to work with a company or airline’s customer service people.

  • Robert Thomas

    When any oblivious member of the public collides with my person – as most often happens now with those staring at their smartphones when I’m preparing to board or disembark an elevator car – I find myself reflexively offering “pardon me” as the other reels backward or else falls to the floor.

    It’s a reflex instilled in me by my mother, a more formidable source of interpersonal etiquette than any breathing ethicist, social critic or academic. I fail to deliver the apology without a certain disdain, I fear.

  • NK

    I know we are talking about the tentative speech issue with respect to women. However, how do we try to balance arrogance vs straight (unapologetic) talk?

  • Jon Latimer

    I apologize in advance if this sounds insensitive to any gender issues at play (see what I did there; ), but I’m a man and have ALWAYS had a tendency to speak in the manner described, and believe if simply reflects a heightened sense of empathy. Apologizing in this way is not so much a statement of fault, or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but more of a courtesy, or simply a practice of good manners. As one of the speakers suggested, perhaps women are naturally more predisposed to NOT be as selfish or ‘other mind blind’ as men tend to be?

    • BeaM

      Jon, the point here is that women are …attacked, really… for this behavior in a way men are not. Examples of men using uptalk and vocal creak (powerful men like former presidents and other leaders) abound on YouTube and none of them is seen as “less than” or “insecure” the way women recently have in countless articles. One actor who plays very “manly” roles once conducted an entire interview in vocal creak.
      YES, uptalk often connotes “I’m about to add to this list of things I’m recounting,” or “Are you still with me?” in conversation. Vocal creak often comes from fatigue or just running out of air at the end of a sentence.
      To me, this attack on women’s use of various common vocal qualities is part and parcel of a cultural insistence on seeing women as needing correction, “fixing,” or “improvement” in order to be taken seriously. “Lean In” is a prime example of a woman joining the general drive to tweak the behavior and attitudes of women as if we don’t have the gravitas and credibility given to men automatically.
      No wonder women are more likely to apologize for things that aren’t their fault. Often they’re apologizing for taking up the space/time/oxygen/attention that a man feels is rightfully his.
      I can’t tell you how hard I had to work, as a newbie in the professional world, to stop saying sentences starting with “I’m sorry, but…” when what I was expressing was a great idea, a valid critique, or a contradictory insight. I learned a lot from watching how men just barge in and state their points of view, then call women “bossy, b*tchy, and b*ll-busting” for doing the same thing.
      A man can *lose* his credibility. A woman has to fight to gain hers.

      • geraldfnord

        I think it were better for men to be attacked for these vices rather than for their free passes’ extension to women. I want equality, but not a race to the bottom.

    • geraldfnord

      Yup, I speak in this way as well and wish that most others, from working-class women through billionaire men, did as well…which they emphatically do not do.

  • Ross

    So the argument against Hillary’s email scandal is that men cant stand women speaking in public? The political debate has become so juvenile in this country

  • Robert Thomas

    Never apologize. Never explain. Never get invited to lunch.

    • geraldfnord

      People ought to remember that Winston was dead-right…about exactly one (extremely important) issue.

  • marte48

    I’m sorry, too, but doesn’t this make women better at negotiating?

  • Winjas

    I have to say the characteristic that I think is much more damaging and drives me crazy is when people (mostly women) end their sentences going up as a question, but they are making a statement. I even hear people in the media talk like this.

  • Adrienne Rodriguez

    The first time I heard of the Tentative speech behavior among women was my first year at an all women’s college, Mills College in Oakland – they highlighted it as a reason all women’s colleges were beneficial for building a woman’s voice because of the absence an over arching presence of men critiquing opinions – I found this very empowering and had never realized it before – it appeared I had internalized this behavior of an apologetic woman

  • Don Jon

    First as a man, I apologize a lot. I don’t know wether it’s a millennial thing. For me it stemmed from fighting with my brothers, where I learned if I apologized and explain we would all feel a lot better and it would be done and over with.
    Secondly as a preschool teacher, it isn’t just women being scrutinized, I have noticed that I’m not allowed to use the same laungue of my fellow female teachers. When need to be stern or give them the eye, like my fellow teachers do, I am told that I am being aggressive and my “manly voice is scaring the children”. I feel like I’m being constantly judged, making me apologize everywhere I can.

  • Niketana

    I wonder how these behaviors would look if viewed through the lens of personality type: introvert vs. extrovert, for example.

  • J. M.


    I loved listening to this broadcast, and linked to it in my blog. Thank you for furthering this conversation.

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