Let’s Talk About Tentative Speech

people talking in public

Let’s Talk About Tentative Speech

I have a three-hour commute, and in all that reading time, I’ve come across a few articles in the past couple of months about women and tentative speech. Tentative, or indirect, speech, as I’ve come to understand it, is speech that seeks to not offend or take a firm stance.  For example, beginning a comment with, “I’m sorry, but…” or peppering in words like “just” or “I think,” to make it clear that you’re stating an opinion, not a statement, so it’s okay to disagree.  It’s the other side of the pendulum to assertive speech.

At first, I was very enthusiastic about women eliminating so-called tentative speech from their vocabulary – why should we feel like we have to apologize for everything (even if it’s not our fault) and accommodate everyone’s feelings? I was so into that idea that when I listened to Emilie Aries’s interview with the women of Stuff Mom Never Told You, I immediately shared the podcast episode with everyone on social media.  

“You are not there to make everyone like you…. Putting your purpose over others’ perception of you can be really liberating.” – Emilie Aries, founder and CEO of Bossed Up

I’ve been at my current job for a little over a year.  In that year, not only has a lot happened in my personal life to change the way I carry myself and act around others, but I’ve strived to be more assertive in my communication in general, since I work as an administrative project assistant in an office. In a position where I mainly help others with their projects, I’ve worked hard to set boundaries and guidelines about how I accept work (for my own sanity).

There’s a difference between being nice and letting others take advantage of you. A lot of learning to stand my ground has been slowly culling certain things from my vocabulary – words and phrases that I’ve noticed are primarily used by women to seem accommodating and approachable. I’ve seen so many women in my life soften their opinions so they don’t seem “bitchy” or cold, and I’ve seen how it can hurt others’ perceptions of them. A part of building my self-confidence has been the  faking it till you make it philosophy – simply acting like I deserve things convinces others that I do deserve them.  

As a teenager, I had a horrible habit of deferring to whoever I was around. It was rare that I would express my own opinion unless it lined up with those around me, which was a tactic that I picked up very young as an immigrant kid who did not want to cause trouble. It took a lot to learn that avoiding conflict at all costs just flat-out isn’t healthy.

However, I don’t think that, in order to be successful, women need to completely strike words from their vocabulary or that it will magically make them seem more assertive.  That’s a much deeper issue that has underlying causes other than tentative speech.  In a follow-up article, I’ll share more of what I’ve come across in my research about women in professional spaces and the obstacles we face in trying to be taken seriously.  

In the meantime, are there certain words or phrase that you use that might be considered tentative speech? I’ve written before that I’m trying to avoid defending things I watch by calling them guilty pleasures, which could be considered akin to tentative…. Are there any phrases you’ve attempted to phase out from your vocabulary?

Isabela Oliveira is a renaissance geek, in the sense that she knows a little about a whole lot of things. She is always looking for the next great TV show to marathon and for the next exciting thing to learn and write about. In her spare time, she writes and manages social media for The Geek Embassy and works to dismantle the patriarchy in Vancouver, Washington.

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