There’s been a lot of talk lately about how women speak passively, and it keeps them from positions of leadership. There’s even a Google app for that now, underlining specific words or phrases so that you are more aware of how you use them. It got me thinking, because I’m sensitive to language and how it is used. It also caused me to reflect on a specific situation that beautifully illustrates language, the passive voice, and leadership.
I used to be involved in an armored martial art sport. I’d put on 30 or so pounds of medieval style armor, pick up sticks styled to look like medieval weapons, (but made out of rattan so we didn’t actually kill each other), and wade into frays ranging from mano-a-mano to full on battles encompassing hundreds of people moving as units and divisions. I’m not sure of the actual percentage, but the sport is at least 90% male. It was not unusual for me to be the only female around. At the most, there were only 2 or 3 other female regulars.
It was in one of the large group situations that I found myself relaying commands from the front line to the back reserve unit.
“If we get to the other side, raise the flag and protect it at all costs. Do not fall back.” I shouted as loudly as I could, but in as low a tone as I could muster. It was well known that the majority of these individuals would not even register a high female voice.
A grumble came from in front of me, “You mean, “When.”
“You mean “When” we get to the other side. Not “If”.
The other men grumbled in agreement, and I tried to roll with it. “Right! When we get to the other side!”
But the moment had passed. I had made the grave error of using the wrong voice. Nothing else I could say would make an impression with this group, and I watched their interest slide off me until I was invisible. I remained invisible even after that day’s events were over. I don't know if they registered that with that dismissal, I was basically dismissed from the sport. It was only a matter of time.
I fought it or a while, but it was exhausting, and one more reason for me to walk away from a hobby I poured countless hours and dollars into.
I learned a lot from my time in that sport. I learned my lesson in passivity that day. It’s not the Tiger Mama Lean In Glass Ceiling Shattering lesson most stirring storytellers would have me learn. I learned that I’m not going to be listened to, and when I am, I say it wrong anyway, so why say anything at all?
I propose, in the attack on passivity –
Sometimes the passive voice is better than no voice at all.