We interrupt the standard posts on remote work for a reflection on using communication to support your success.
Recently I read an article from SUCCESS.com about “4 Ways Women Can Embrace Their Inner Ambition.” The premise was good: many women are ambitious but are hesitant to display their ambition for fear of offending or alienating people and limiting their own potential in turn. Stefanie O’Connell explains: “when women pursue their goals, they often experience something called the backlash effect in which people perceive them as less likable, hirable or promotable.” She continues: “Research has shown avoidance of the backlash effect, not a lack of drive, is what keeps many women from self-promoting and fully embracing their ambitious side.”
She does not gender the backlash effect, attributing the offense either to men or women. But interestingly, when I reflected on my own professional experience, both within academia and the corporate world, I could not find an example of male colleagues or superiors who responded poorly to my ambition (which generally is not subtle), but I could recall numerous friendships with female colleagues that might have turned sour for this reason, as well as women in my sphere who clearly didn’t like me because I came on too strong in my efforts at high performance. While this post is not about gendered responses to female ambition, I do want to say that it is incredibly important for women to support each other in their success journeys, as oftentimes it feels like we keep that glass ceiling intact for each other because we are jealous of each other’s progress.
Back to the point: One of the strategies that O’Connell provides for women to “embrace their inner ambition” is to “identify [their] ambitions in communal terms.” In other words, to make people feel more comfortable about our ambition—including ourselves—we should always frame our plans for success in terms of communal or organizational value (i.e., If I succeed, we all succeed). I admit, this really bothered me when I read it, because it reinforces the backlash effect rather than challenging it. The goal is to make female ambition palatable and inoffensive by qualifying it, but in doing so, it sends the message that it is threatening and unacceptable on its own terms. Of course it’s important to add value to our organizations and larger causes, but why must we qualify our drive in that way in order to make people (including ourselves) more comfortable with female ambition? We need to change the culture around female ambition so that it can be accepted on its own terms and not read as a moral failing—something that makes women seem unnatural, unlikeable, bossy, etc.
I am certainly guilty of succumbing to this pressure to appear less capable. And when I began reflecting on the ways that the fear of being unlikeable because of my intensity manifests in my life, I realized that it reaches all the way down into my daily communication practices. That’s right: I overuse emojis. This may sound like a silly conclusion to draw. Don’t we all use emojis because they’re trendy and require less thought than forming words? Sure, it’s a sign of my communicative laziness, but I overuse a particular emoji, slapping it onto the end of far too many of my sentences: the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji.
It does not matter if I’m making a joke, asking for dinner suggestions, relaying information about a work project—I will use the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji in any circumstance. Being a rhetorician, I thought about the argument this emoji was making, and I realized that it was intended to soften my sentences. Even for completely neutral, inoffensive messages, I felt the need to 😂 in case the recipient found some sort of fault with what I was saying. My overuse of this emoji revealed a hesitancy in all my communications—one rooted, I think, in fear of the backlash effect. I feared coming across too strong in any way and consequently being perceived as less likable, so I undercut my communication by, effectively, laughing at everything I say. That is, after all, what this emoji is doing: laughing in an uncomfortable way. Somewhere along the way, I became less comfortable with being direct and started softening my messages.
So for those of us who regularly feel the need to laugh at ourselves because we’re not comfortable with boldness, let’s remember that we owe it to ourselves and those with whom we communicate to be clear, direct, and assertive. We should not limit our capability and, by extension, others’ perception of it by writing something and then undercutting its strength with a self-deprecating emoji. And the same thing goes for men. Perhaps my emoji use is rooted in a self-consciousness about being a bold woman, but perhaps others, including men, use emojis in ways that do not support their success. I think it’s helpful to remember the age-old rule about punctuation in writing: an overuse of exclamation points indicates an inability to find descriptive enough words to communicate emphasis (I’ve succumbed to this as well). If an emoji is being used like punctuation, question what it is emphasizing—that the message should be taken less seriously? If so, delete it. If it’s being used in place of words, challenge yourself to find the clearest, most descriptive means of communicating your point sans emoji. Our language use shapes the way that we perceive the world and the way that others perceive us, so it’s crucial that we don’t unintentionally hinder our potential by undermining our communications.