No doubt you’ve sent and received emails filled with words like “sorry,” “I think,” “just” and “actually.” What you may not realize is these qualifying words and phrases signal a lack of confidence and empowerment. In other words, whether you’re bidding on new business or urging your senator to vote yes on a particular bill, you may be sabotaging your communications clout.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that women rely on these diminishing words and phrases more often than men. And it’s not just in emails — women apologize more in person, too.

That’s why Tami Reiss, Steve Brudz and Manish Kakwani of Cyrus Innovation created a plug-in for Gmail last year called Just Not Sorry, which warns when you’re using words that sap your memos and correspondence of potency and impact.

Reiss (who no longer works at Cyrus Innovation) describes her eureka moment in this article. While attending a brunch for women leaders, she and the other attendees began comparing notes and soon realized they were all guilty of undercutting their authority with wobbly words. As Reiss writes:

The women in these rooms were all softening their speech in situations that called for directness and leadership. We had all inadvertently fallen prey to a cultural communication pattern that undermined our ideas. As entrepreneurial women, we run businesses and lead teams — why aren’t we writing with the confidence of their positions? There was the desire to change, but there wasn’t a tool to help.

Making every word count

Inspired by that meeting and the writings of women like Tara Mohr, a self-described “expert on women’s leadership and well-being,” Reiss and her colleagues launched their Chrome extension for Gmail in December 2015. Within months they had over 200,000 users.

Just Not Sorry Gmail plug-in screenshot Screenshot of the Just Not Sorry Gmail plug-in that helps people rid their emails of weak and indecisive words. (Photo: Just Not Sorry)

Just Not Sorry is free and easy to use. After a quick download, the app scans your emails and underlines trigger words and phrases. Additional information explains how others may perceive those words as hesitant or apologetic — and you as an unassured pushover. Examples include:

  • “I’m no expert” — a tentative qualifier that undermines your ideas and authority
  • “Just” — an apologetic word that softens your request and shrinks your power (as in “I’m just checking to see if …”)
  • “I think” — another disempowering qualifier that diffuses the influence of your suggestions (as in “I think we should do this” or “I think I have an idea.”)

Helpful or sexist?

Not everyone is enamored of the app. In this article in The Guardian, author Harriet Minter cries foul on the notion that women must change how they speak and write to sound and act more like men. Instead, she wonders why men can’t start understanding how women communicate and learn to embrace it.

Reiss, though, is convinced that watered-down language does contribute to women losing business opportunities and respect, whether they like it or not. As she notes, “The last thing you need is to seem unsure of yourself. We want to make it easy to kick the habit by making it obvious when these qualifiers are holding us back.”

The good thing about Just Not Sorry is you’re not locked into changing habits you don’t want to change. If you don’t agree that certain words are wishy-washy or apologetic, you needn’t take the app’s advice. The highlighted words are merely suggested corrections to help you become a more effective and direct communicator and aren’t included when the email is sent. Just Not Sorry gives women (and men) a second chance to decide for themselves whether to delete qualifying language, leave it in or insert something stronger.