A few years back I noticed something: the frequency with which the word “just” appeared in email and conversation from female co-workers and friends.
I first sensed this shortly after leaving Google and joining a company with a high ratio of female to male employees.
Google, and everywhere else I’d worked before, had a more traditional gender mix.
I’d never really noted a high concentration of “just” before, so I thought it might be my imagination. But soon I knew my hunch was legit. “Just” just kept showing up way too frequently.
“I just wanted to check in on …”
“Just wondering if you’d decided between …”
“If you can just give me an answer, then …”
“I’m just following up on …”
I started paying attention, at work and beyond. It didn’t take long to sense something I hadn’t noticed before: women used “just” a lot more often than men.
Still, it was only a hunch — I had no data. Yet even if it was selective listening, it seemed I was hearing “just” three to four times more frequently from women than from men.
It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that “just” didn’t make sense.
I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.
And as I began to pay attention, I was astonished — believe me — at how often I used the word.
I sent a memo to my work teammates about the “J” word and suggested a moratorium on using it. We talked about what it seemed to imply (everyone agreed) and how different that message was from the way we saw ourselves: trusted advisors, true partners, win-win champions of customer success.
We started noticing when and how we used “just” and outing each other when we slipped. Over time, frequency diminished. And as it did we felt a change in our communication — even our confidence. We didn’t dilute our messages with a word that weakened them.