Do you have a problem with ‘kneecapping?’ How to nix apologetic language from your life

Posted on 9/03/19

‘Just’, ‘sorry’, ‘I was wondering if…’ Do the above pepper your emails? Well, then you might be ‘kneecapping’ – a term coined by Instagrammer @rosaspeaks.

It means littering your vocab with modifiers, things that soften the meaning of what you are saying, and which people of color, women and other marginalised folks often pick up to avoid being thought of as ‘aggressive.’

‘There’s a host of caveated language that women use in emails and when speaking. Things like “I’m sorry to bother you” – apologising from the offset,’ says Natalie Hall, of Elevate Her executive and career coaching (@elevateyourwellbeing).

‘In boardrooms, I’ve seen this manifest itself as total silence, introducing themselves as purely scaffolding “Hi, I’m just here as I support John Smith in his role” and apologizing profusely for their opinions: “I’m really sorry and I’m not sure if this is relevant….”

Gah. But, why does this matter? ‘It’s telling the other person that you are not on an equal playing field,’ elaborates Hall. ‘You’re putting yourself on the begging side of the pendulum; saying that the value in that conversation does not lie with you.’

And it’s not just surface level. ‘Multiple self-deprecating phrases serve to undermine you in the eyes of the recipient but also continues to reinforce a lifetime of beliefs you hold about yourself.’ This, Hall reckons, lowers your confidence and resilience at the same time.

Okay, let’s rewind. A lot of us know we have this tendency when our male counterparts don’t. Where does it all stem from?

‘As young girls in the eighties and nineties, the focus was on compliance and good behaviour,’ is Hall’s take.

‘The rules change when you arrive in the work of world where politeness, perfect homework and always raising your hand to speak doesn’t equate to professional success. An ability to take risks, inspire action, and lead, instead, are all attributes required to climb the ladder.’

Sure. But when you’ve been moulded in the image of a certain educational standard – especially if this was reinforced at home (aren’t you so good and smart how you sit and read quietly!) – how do you take a hammer to this mindset?


Here are Hall’s tips:


*The first step is self-awareness. Pause for thought. If it’s an email, have a look at what you’ve written before you press ‘send’. Check your language: how apologetic are you being? Challenge yourself to be more direct - brief notes are better in a world of inbox saturation.

*If you’re asking someone to, say, meet for coffee, then saying: ‘I admire what you’ve been doing professionally, it would be great to connect’ is better than: ‘If you felt you had the time, sorry to bother you, etc etc’. State what you bring to the party – why is it worth their time to meet you? Of course be polite and use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but hold your nerve.

*If you’re in a meeting and have something to say, just have a go – overthinking isn’t going to make it any better. It doesn’t need to be perfect prose. Just think how many times in the workplace you’ve heard someone say “Bear with me, I’ve got this idea…..” 

* Think about your beliefs (the things that you hold to be true that you don’t necessarily have evidence for) about who you are. What limits do you impose on yourself? What thoughts hold you back from truly and authentically showing up? These will reveal themselves in your language, so getting a hold of them is a smart call.

by Claudia Canavan & Roisín Dervish-O’Kane, @allupinyourfeelings 

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