TikTok told me I should “act like a man” in the workplace to be taken seriously


WORDS BY Alexandra La Sala

Why I’ll never stop using smiley faces and exclamation points.

A TikTok trend has emerged where women are matching the email etiquette of men. No exclamation marks, no smiles, no ‘gentle’ nudges. No apologies, just straight to the point. Skip the niceties. This was an empowering notion at first. Why shouldn’t I behave the way that men do?

While sifting through my inbox, I realised, quickly and shamefully, that I was peppering all of my emails with this kind of behaviour. I was hoping that people “had a fab weekend!?” and reiterating “no stress at all!” when tasks weren’t delivered on time. I was opting for softness as a means to hurdle over the tricky barriers of non-verbal exchanges.

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In a broader sense, I was forced to consider how often I find myself in positions where I need to prove my professional worth. As a twenty-five-year-old senior account manager, I’m no stranger to going the extra mile in order to prove that I know exactly what I am doing. Better yet, that I am good at it.

I’m not naive. I can feel the mood of a room change when I bounce in wearing pink lipstick and heeled boots. It doesn’t help when I whip out a vibrantly patterned iPhone case or trek back to my car, where a portrait of Harry Styles’ face is dangling as an air freshener.

@vivsmeepls don’t take this personally kevin ##womeninbusiness ##careeradvice ##corporatelife ##emailtips ##millennial ##dramaticmoments ##ootd♬ presleywalker – PresleyWalker

This isn’t a new conversation. I once worked under a manager who told me to never apologise “even if you’re wrong”. As a graduate at the time, I remember thinking that this was an absurd way to behave but obliged anyway.

The idea that women are ‘permission asking’ in corporate environments has been circulating ever since we forced our way into them but, for some reason, this trend resuscitated an anxiety in me. I needed to change my tone. I needed to be taken seriously.

So, as #CorporateTok encouraged, I backspaced my exclamation points. I mimicked how men would speak to me. I hardened myself and refused to let my chirpiness shine through as a way to assert my professional dominance.

But what started out as a ‘stick it to the patriarchy’ move didn’t end up feeling very empowering at all. I just felt aggressive. And tired. I was bending myself into something that didn’t come naturally, and, in turn, it was actually quite shattering to my confidence. I was just shrinking myself in a different way.

One night, knee-deep in a New Girl binge, something that the quirky and magnetic Jess says in Season One struck a chord: “I brake for birds, I rock a lot of polka dots… And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I am not smart and tough and strong.”

And it hit me. The discourse around emailing like a man ties into a much bigger issue with our society. For years, we have encouraged women to act a little tougher and to interact a little more calmly in order to be respected or deemed worthy of people’s time. The problem is placed on us and never on the codes that our society remains married to.

We live in a world where we are taught that masculinity, or toughness, is the ultimate goal. That, even as women, this is what we should strive for every day. We are allowed to have goals and we are allowed to chase professional dreams, but we have to do so in a way that fits the terms and conditions of our social mould.

For a really long time, softness has been mistaken for weakness. We have written an ugly narrative where traits that are traditionally associated with femininity aren’t to be taken seriously.

The biggest problem with this narrative is that, when you actually strip it back, the way in which women interact is incredible. Our level of empathy, intuition and warmth is something to be celebrated. It is baffling that we have suggested otherwise.

This recent revival of ‘lean in’ and ‘girl boss’ feminism flooding my TikTok For You Page serves as another example of women being shoved into corners and told how to behave. We are still being told to “tone it down” but, this time, we’ve just branded it under the theme of empowerment.

Of course, limiting permission asking behaviours is important and allowing ourselves to take up space in the professional world is important, but the belief that exclamation points can take away from intelligence or resilience is a dangerous one, and one that is unquestionably rooted in misogyny.

There are times where bluntness is necessary. There are times where reminding people that you were in the middle of speaking is necessary. There are times where going after what you want, without hesitation, is necessary. But categorising all types of kindness as ‘permission asking’ is particularly damaging in that it further perpetuates the idea that professionalism can only be associated with the traits of a man, and that women are only worthy if they mirror these behaviours.

The very idea that we have to dampen our vivacious natures and kindness in order to ‘climb the corporate ladder’ also broadcasts an unsteady message to ambitious girls everywhere. It’s unsteady in that it comes with a double-edged sword: be nice but don’t be soft, be assertive but never aggressive. As women, we are always teetering on the slippery slope between enough and not too much. How can we possibly win when we are given such delicate ropes to walk on?

I don’t want to harden myself. I don’t want to drop the vibrant traits that make up my personality. I don’t want to stop gushing over fashion and music and cringe-worthy TV shows. I don’t want to stop quoting Her Majesty Blair Waldorf, Dictator of Taste, on a daily basis. I don’t want to stop wearing pink out of fear that it’ll make people question my talents, my resilience or my strength.

Women should be taken seriously, period. Whether they come with frills and glitter and exclamation points or they don’t, they are just as worthy of your respect. Softness is not weakness – it is just one ingredient of many that shapes a woman’s resilience and unparalleled empathy. We deserve to take up as much space in the room as the next guy.

It’s time to reject the shackles of this narrative. Refusing to alter your natural tone is a stance in itself; refusing to let misogyny thrive in 2021 under the camouflage of girl boss empowerment is a powerful protest. Disobedience has always made the loudest noise.

So, when I sit down with an oat milk latte, in a brightly coloured keep cup no less, and bop, unapologetically, to Taylor Swift during my next Monday-morning-mailbox triage, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be using exclamation points. Maybe even a couple of smiley faces.

For more advice on navigating the workplace as a woman, try this.

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