If we're to believe the self-help aisle of every '90s bookstore, men and women talk and act so differently because we're really from two opposing planets.

While that's not factually accurate, there's no denying that men and women have unique communication styles, and that disparity can make things challenging for women looking to get ahead in careers still dominated by male voices. 

But when the first female presidential nominee for a major political party addresses the nation to describe her vision for America, only to be met by pundits dissecting her smile and her "shrill" tone instead of her proposed policies — it’s clear that words really matter. Not simply because we’re women, but especially because we’re women.


So, what makes language explicitly "female"?

Ask a linguist and they'll tell you that women's language is generally more expressive and emotional. Women learn to speak earlier and with greater complexity. We're more likely to use dramatic punctuation or emojis to help us get our point across. We're also especially likely to use words and phrases that soften an opinion or gently undermine a point in order to make others feel more comfortable.

That is particularly important because these language choices are not accidental. We live in a culture that values female voices more when they reflect traditional "lady" characteristics of humility, likability, and politeness above all. 

Others who've written about this topic have addressed more reasons why women might avoid using stronger language. Jezebel's Tracy Moore wrote about the reality of a male-dominated society where women live with the "the ever-present background fear of being perceived as a nag." Author Tara Mohr acknowledged that for centuries, "women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us."

All of those are true and fair. But at the same time, they're holding us back.

It is 2016. If women can fight and die for a country; if we can bust ghosts and glass ceilings; if we can raise our voices for intersectional equality and fair, equal wages; then we are more than ready to match the way we communicate with this moment in history.

Here are the three biggest verbal tics women use that can make language lose its power:

Sorry, but we're just saying "just" and "sorry" too much.

Rosa Parks used powerful action and words to ignite the fire of the U.S. civil rights movement. Sadly, her memorable words lose a little something when they're coupled with two of the most common words in female language: "just" and "sorry."

Saying "sorry" when it isn't necessary is so common that a shampoo company made an ad about it. But researchers say using the word risks taking responsibility for faults and actions that aren’t our own — or aren’t even faults. Being mindful of when we apologize (and where and how) is good advice regardless of gender or workplace.

The use of "just" is a little more complicated. Some women, like former Google executive Ellen Leanse, believe that adding "just" to statements gives other people more authority and control and makes the speaker seem defensive. 

As she wrote on her blog

"It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a 'permission' word, in a way — 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?'"

Others argue that "just" can be used effectively as a way to give importance to a certain word, like the famed Nike slogan "Just do it." Though, to be fair, that famous statement wasn't written by — or inspired by — a woman.

Self-deprecating phrases can make us seem less smart.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has enough problems with people misattributing her most famous quote to other people; she doesn't need the power of her words diminished.

Using qualifiers that lessen female authority to make strong statements, like "I'm not an expert" or "You've worked on this longer than I have," are a common way that women couch their statements when they're afraid of offending others. 

Unfortunately, this can have the unintended effect of making a female speaker seem less credible and her ideas less worthy.

Being overly cautious can unintentionally undermine us.

It's very easy to end a statement, presentation, or even an email with a qualifying statement like "Do you know what I mean?" or "Am I making sense?" These phrases are subtle underminers, making it seem that women don't have faith in their own ideas and are asking for approval for them. 

Phrases like "What do you think?" or "Looking forward to your comments or questions" are a better way to make the same point.

Let's be real: If a woman wants to keep these words and phrases in her vocabulary, she is more than welcome to do so.

There are perfectly good reasons why someone would choose to soften language and make it more friendly. Maybe it helps move things forward with someone difficult. Maybe they've already been told — as too many working women have — that talking more like a man at work was making them seem "judgmental" or overly negative. Maybe they simply like using them — and, seriously, who are any of us to tell anyone else what they can and cannot say?

But in a world where women have fought so hard for what we have and still have so much further to go, being aware of the unintended implications of our language isn't a bad idea. 

Especially if it helps women eventually prove that the way we say things doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we’re saying.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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