When my most senior boss called me into his office several years ago, my first instinct was: Uh-oh. What did I do wrong?
The day before, I had sent out a department-wide e-mail that I clearly did not believe I had the authority to write. I peppered it with phrases like "this is none of my business" or "just my two cents."
When I showed up in his office, my boss — a white, middle-aged man — handed me a printed version of my e-mail. All of my disclaimers appeared in neon highlighter.
"Laura," he said with concern, "one time is OK. But three?"
At the time, I was a veteran reporter who had won national journalism awards and delighted in holding the powerful accountable. But you wouldn't know that from how I carried myself in my workplace. The tendency to discount my ideas was almost like a tic that even to this day has been hard for me to eradicate.
It's called "hedging," Ellie Krug told me recently.
"Maybe it's just me," she said, offering another all-too-common hedge.
Krug is, as she puts it, about a decade into being a woman. She's also a Minnesota-based writer, radio host and national speaker and trainer on diversity and inclusion. After she transitioned to female in 2009 at the age of 52, she learned how her old style of communicating wasn't going to cut it.
When she presented as male, Krug, then a trial lawyer in Iowa, attracted clients over the decades with her attack-dog style in the courtroom. But in one of her first and only cases she tried as a woman, her former "killer Krug" persona re-emerged as she drilled into a witness. She lost the trial.
Was it because she came off too aggressive as a woman? Because she was transgender? Or some other reason? She'll never know for sure.
She began to adopt more "feminine" communication styles, even though she initially balked at the idea.
"To me, it was subservient, it was submissive language. 'No, I'm not going to do it,' " Krug recalls telling her speech therapist, who was coaching Krug after she transitioned.
And Krug almost didn't do it, until the speech therapist reminded her of the very real threat of violence that trans women face.
"My instructor said, 'You're at personal physical risk in some places, so you need to do this for self-protection.' "
So Krug mastered walking that fine line of talking like a woman. She learned to hedge. She embraced the use of friendly exclamation points in her e-mails. She worked to be less direct.
"A guy would say, 'I'm cold,'" Krug says. "A woman might say, "Is it chilly in here? I think it might be."
Granted, communication styles are not dictated only by gender. Your personality type, upbringing and work culture can all play into how you interact with colleagues. I know lots of men who also apologize before they express their opinions. But many girls have been taught that being liked is more important than using their voice.
Sometimes that conditioning continues for decades. I have friends — women in their 40s — who have been told by co-workers that they are too direct. Another has calibrated her messaging in the workplace to include just a "tinge" of bossiness. "Not a lot — just a tinge to get it done," she likes to say.
This is the same friend I once asked to proofread an e-mail I was about to send to a contractor with whom I was having problems. The first thing she did was remove all of my ridiculous exclamation marks, because "Thanks!" did not exactly convey dissatisfaction with the fact that my new bathroom framing was not square.
Even though Krug has softened her communication style, she has remained outspoken.
While serving on a neighborhood association board, she remembers going to a retreat and speaking passionately in favor of zoning that preserved the area's historic character. Another board member, an architect, objected.
"He said to me, 'Ellie, what you said was either an intentional misstatement of the facts, or you're just plain ignorant,' " she said. "It had been a long time since anyone called me ignorant in a room full of my peers. It hurt. That would have never happened to me if I presented as a man. There never would have been that kind of disrespect."
The man did apologize at lunch, but Krug said by that time, her mind was made up. "I quit the board right there," she said. "I ate my bag of chips and said, 'I'm not staying for the rest of the day.' "
Her walkout was an act of self-preservation. Had she been a man, she says, she would have barked back. But like many women, she felt limited in how she could respond.
As a trainer, she's aware of how hard she works to strike just the right tone so as not to alienate her audience.
"I have to always figure out how I'm going to do something that will bring people in, rather than push them out," Krug said.
If Outlook had an feature that could root out that self-effacing tic from my outgoing messages, I would employ it every time, just like a spellcheck.
For all the women who have tempered your messages with needless self-doubt, know that you can still lead with empathy and humility without undermining the value of your ideas. Yes, let's own up to our mistakes and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, but as Krug says, be bold. Don't stay in your lane. Rock the boat. Take risks.
That's just my two cents.