Banning of the word “bossy” as it is often used to describe women who take charge is a goal set by Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and a worthy one. If nothing else, attention to the term and its use may diminish its utility. As a management professor of persuasion, negotiation, politics and communication, I’m pleased to see someone with the visibility Sandberg has take to task words used to derail women’s leadership. And that’s exactly what such words do.
Early in my persuasion classes, I ask my students how useful a letter from me to one of their potential employers would be were I to describe them as “stubborn.” Of course, they say it would do more harm than good. What if, however, I were to describe those same characteristics as “determined,” “persistent,” or “dedicated”? Ah, yes, those are much better. They describe the same behaviors in a positive way. Language is like this. Words have denotative or dictionary meanings, but also connotative meanings which are attachments we add as groups or culturally. To change the meaning of a word, both need to be addressed.
“Bossy” is a word that has developed some very negative connotations for women. A campaign to rid it from our workplace lexicon and elsewhere raises our awareness to its dangers. But as is explained in Comebacks at Work, written with my co-author Chris Noblet, the important thing is to know how to respond when words like this are used against you. For example, if a colleague or boss refers to you as “bossy,” what should you say? You could say, “Have you heard of the campaign led by Sheryl Sandberg to get rid of that term due to its sexist overtones?” That could work in some situations. Perhaps you’re not comfortable with it. Perhaps it doesn’t fit your style. In Comebacks at Work, we explore a range of options for situations like this. If you defend yourself by saying, “I’m not bossy,” the person who may have been playing gotcha did get you right where he/she wants you to be. Instead, you could say, “I am passionate about this issue. You should be too,” “That word demeans leadership and I doubt you meant to do that,” or “If you mean I’m being assertive on this issue, you’d be right. It’s important.”
As Robin Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics emerita at UC Berkeley, explains, the second-wave women’s movement in the 1970s endeavored to change gender relations by changing language. She writes that the result “is not a happy story.” If however, you know how to respond to words that demean or discredit, then for your own self, at least, it’s possible to not only deal with “bossy” but to reduce the likelihood that it will be applied to you.
Additionally, knowing how to respond to such put-downs provides a kind of grassroots effort to supplement the one being made by Sandberg and her colleagues. Chipping away at derogatory terms on a daily basis while highly visible people give attention to their damaging usage is a promising combination.