‘I’m Speaking,’ Explained
Recently, Katrina and I were sitting next to each other on a 30-minute Zoom call with a client. I’ve begun recording some of my calls with my iPhone, because sometimes I like to review what was said later. The next day, I was listening to the recording. As the 30 minutes unfolded, I became aware of something that took me by surprise.
I was talking… a lot. A whole lot. There were a couple of times when I spoke over Katrina. There were times when I just started talking, obviously with no point in mind, rather musing aloud until I made my way to some conclusion. The people on the call seemingly took no issue with me doing this.
I felt a sense of embarrassment creeping up in me as the recording continued. Here I was, this “woke” liberal guy I consider myself to be, talking over not just my wife but my superior in this context. Katrina is the CEO and founder of Turnkey, while I am a contractor to the company. (I prefer to be a 1099 consultant rather than an employee of my wife’s company, but that’s another story.)
At the end of the 30 minutes, I had an “oh crap” moment. It was like waking up one morning and discovering a large, unsightly mole that I’d never noticed on the side of my face. Have people been looking at it my entire life?
The thing that I realized there and then was the why of it all. Why had I taken up all that space with my words in that conversation? Why had I felt entitled to speak like that? I came to this unavoidable conclusion...
I took up all that space because I could.
I took up all that space because I’m a man.
I’m going to chalk it up to my “male privilege.” What made it so disturbing is how completely unaware I was of my behavior. And surely this wasn’t the first time it had happened. But what accounts for Katrina allowing me to get away with it? Let’s call her behavior the flip side of male privilege, “female marginalization,” perhaps. It has a long and unpleasant history, which is still ongoing.
A 2020 United Nations report notes that for centuries, women lacked the political and human rights to protect their safety if they spoke up, and threatened or angered those around them. So, of course, they learned to soften their communication. To the present day, little has changed, all kinds of unconscious habits influence women's speech.
Many women have the unconscious habit of apologizing before asking a question; to apologize in all kinds of situations where an apology is not warranted. Often when they're standing in line, they'll apologize simply for taking up space.
In addition to reflexively ceding the floor to men, women sound different than men when they do speak. Women’s advocate Tara Mohr describes lots of “little things” women do in speech and writing that have a huge impact in coming across as less competent and confident.
Inserting "just": “I just want to check in and see…” “I just think…” “Just” tends to make one sound a little apologetic and defensive about what they're saying. Think about the difference between the sound of “I just want to check in and see…” and “I want to check in and see…”.
Inserting "actually": “I actually disagree…” “I actually have a question.” It makes you sound surprised that we disagree or have a question, which makes it less direct.
Using qualifiers: “I’m no expert in this, but…” or “I know you all have been researching this for a long time, but…” undermines a person before they've even stated their opinion.
Asking, “Does that make sense?” or “Am I making sense?” This language implies you're being incoherent. That you are probably difficult to understand or muddled in your thinking.
The pernicious thing about these unconscious habits is just that — they're unconscious. Women are unaware they're using self-sabotaging language in speech and writing.
When women use these speech patterns, it evokes some negative stereotype images. That they don’t know what they’re talking about, that they aren’t confident, that they’re ditzy, etc. But when men use the same speech patterns, there’s no negative stereotype evoked. The same language is “read” differently by the audience—whether that audience is male or female.
Women might try changing the tone of their email messages by reviewing them before sending and taking out the qualifiers mentioned above: “just,” “actually,” “but,” “does that make sense,” etc. When you start looking, you might be surprised at how often you use them. Also surprising is how your messages change in tone when you remove them.
For her part, Katrina said, “Honey, I know you feel badly — I’m glad you do. I don’t push back when you interrupt and talk over me, mostly because of habit, but not the one you’re thinking of. I remain silent until I have my thoughts perfectly in order and am ready to speak because I know the airtime I can use will be short. If I talk a lot, my message gets lost behind, ‘She sure does talk a lot!’ And let’s define ‘a lot’ as ‘less than the men, but more than the average woman.’ It’s a tightrope you’re on all the time as a female. Does it suck? Yes. But, I have only a certain amount of social capital, and I have to use it wisely until I change the world.”
I’ve always thought of myself as a good listener. Now I realize... probably not so much. Old habits die hard.
One thing I’ve been doing with Katrina is sitting down and asking her to speak three sentences. Then I paraphrase back to her what she said, and we repeat the cycle a few times. It gets me out of the habit of thinking about what I’m going to say next while she’s still talking instead of really listening to what she’s saying.
Katrina continued, “Women typically know they are being talked over. We have to pick and choose our spots to speak before men and women (women judge each other as harshly as men judge women) start tearing us down. We know we’re using overly soft language. Again, we have to decide when and for what purpose we will use what power we have because we know using it might cost us something, like personal relationships or status. When and if we get beyond this as a society, you won’t have to work hard to keep from interrupting women; we will take care of that problem for you.”
“Kamala Harris’ famous, ‘I’m speaking’ line during the Vice-Presidential debate struck a nerve with women. We recognized someone who developed a tactic for overcoming the communications disparities between men and women. When we saw her use that tactic, most of us loved it. I can see it in marquee lights: ‘I’m Speaking… coming soon to a conversation near you’.”
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.