The four-letter word we need to stop saying


Laura Tuck explores the one innocent word threatening credibility in conversations the world over – ladies, take note…

Not ‘just’ a word

Think back to the last email you sent. Chances are, you may have opened with something like “I just wanted to check in…”, “Just wondering if…” or “I’m just following up on…”

We don’t even realise we’re doing it. Saying ‘just’ before we ask a question or make a statement is a natural way of trying to minimise the perceived imposition we’re making on someone. The trouble is, it’s also undermining our credibility as professionals.

Why it’s harmful

In a nutshell, this four-letter ‘permission’ word has the power to hand over the metaphorical reins to the person you’re speaking to and grant them higher levels of authority and control. If you look at the following statements closely, you’ll see the impact of using the word ‘just’ out of habit rather than necessity:

“I just wanted to let you know that I checked out the report…”

“I checked out the report…”

In the first version, beginning your sentence with ‘just’ automatically implies you’re inconveniencing the other person with your message. Before the recipient even reads the body of your email they sense your apology for interrupting them which, unfortunately, does little to position you as an equal (let alone one that exudes confidence!).

The second version is more concise and straightforward. Being direct doesn’t mean being rude. Remember, this is work. You’re doing your job. They’re doing their job. You don’t need to justify your email or butter up a request.

‘Just’ is especially detrimental when you’re delegating as it can cloud your authority. It can also undermine your wins in the workplace – saying ‘I just thought I’d try something new and it just solved the problem’isn’t going to get you the recognition you deserve as you’re subtly sending a signal that your work isn’t as valuable or worthy of praise.

Why we do it

Former Google exec Ellen Petry Leanse says it’s one of those words we simply use out of habit – 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?’

Unfortunately, it’s also a habit that can be difficult to break. In the same way we immediately say ‘sorry’ when someone bumps into us (despite the fact the other person was in the wrong) we use ‘just’ as a reflex word – and for some reason, it makes us feel better about asking for something that we actually have every right to ask for.

Why women are more prone to ‘just-ing’

Women are stepping up and taking their place at the boardroom table with men, but there’s no denying our communication styles are totally different. Men are more direct with their language, whereas women are culturally conditioned to be empathetic to the needs of others well before their own.

We use more emojis, emoticons and exclamation points, and we’re also more likely to use words and phrases that soften an opinion or gently undermine a point in order to make others feel more comfortable. How many times have you said something like ‘I’m no expert…’ before giving your opinion? Or asking ‘does that make sense?’ before continuing an explanation? Probably more than you realise.

The disparity in how we communicate can make things challenging for women looking to get ahead in their careers, especially in workplaces dominated by men. The good news? It’s 2018 and females are fighting harder than ever to be seen and be heard.

Remember, ladies – you have power, so start using it and stop apologising for it.

To ‘just’ or not to ‘just’

Effective communication – whether in person, via email or over the phone – is vital to building respectful, mutually-beneficial relationships regardless of what industry you’re in.

The next time you see the word ‘just’ creep into your emails, consider why you wrote it. To soften a critique? To let the person know that you aren’t angry for some reason? The same goes for exclamation points and smiley faces. If you re-write your message and express yourself in other ways, it’s more than likely you’ll begin to notice your communication skills becoming sharper.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Focus on written communication first

Before looking at telephone or face-to-face conversation, take time to re-read your emails to colleagues and clients. Quite often you’ll find the culprit lurking right at the beginning of your message (à la ‘just checking in to see if…’). Remove it.

Smiley faces and exclamation points also have their place, and when used in the right context, can help to build relationships and express feelings. However, it’s important to stop and think about whenand whyyou are using them – constantly packing emails full of fluffy niceties out of habit can be seen as unprofessional.

It may take a while to get the hang of proofing and editing emails before hitting send, but after a few weeks it will become second nature. It’s incredibly empowering to stop relying on a security blanket of permission words that dilute your message.

  1. Stop apologising when it’s not necessary

Apologies are inescapably linked with our conception of politeness. While it’s great to be polite, there’s a difference between respectful communication and language that sends a subtle message of subordination – and when this type of communication starts to affect our ability to be taken seriously as a professional, we need to start making some changes.

Reserve the use of ‘I’m sorry’ for when you’ve done something wrong. Don’t apologise for doing your job, taking people’s time, offering something of value or asking for something you need – try saying ‘thank you’ instead!

  1. Learn from those around you

Surround yourself with successful women you respect and admire. Read their emails carefully and take note of how they hold themselves during conversation with others. Chances are they’re friendly but not excessively polite, firm but not aggressive. Taking inspiration from those around you is a great way to master your own communication style. Make it a priority to connect with and empower other women in your industry – supporting each other is the best way to succeed.

At the end of the day, shining a light on how we use the word ‘just’ is all about creating awareness. It’s not about eliminating certain words from your vocabulary, it’s about learning to communicate with conviction. I challenge you to get creative with your language (sans ‘just’) and see whether you notice a boost to your self-confidence, a fresh perspective on your relationships or simply enjoy your voice being heard a little louder.

Laura Tuck

Laura Tuck

The face behind Tide Studio, Laura Tuck has a wealth of both agency and in-house communications experience in New Zealand and abroad.

Tide Studio offers bespoke solutions to businesses looking for top-notch creative ideas and content. Whether you’re after brand new content for your website, a meaty PR campaign to launch a new product, a simple (yet slick) LinkedIn profile or a second pair of eyes to proof read an important award submission, they’re here to help.