should I avoid softening my emails with qualifying language?

A reader writes:

I am curious about your thoughts on using qualifiers (“I think,” “I believe,” “it seems to me,” etc.) in work emails.

I’m a woman in my mid-20s working in grants administration at a nonprofit. I often catch myself writing sentences like “I think the next steps here are…” rather than “The next steps are…” I go back and forth about deleting the qualifiers from a worry that I am being too deferential when I should be authoritative. But without the qualifiers, it feels like I’m stating something as an inarguable fact when in reality, there could always be a nuance or piece of information I’m missing. But I do wonder if it weakens what I am trying to say.

It is certainly not lost on me that being a young woman plays a role in this. Am I overthinking this? Is using language like “I think” just how people talk? Or should I consciously try to be more confident and declarative in my work emails?

There are no hard and fast rules on this. It depends on the context, your organization’s culture, the person you’re writing to, and any politics in the situation. In some cases, you might need to be slightly deferential (if you’re writing, say, to a major prospective funder) or acknowledge that you’re not speaking with absolute expertise. In other cases, you’ll have the expertise and authority to simply announce what the next steps will be, or the best way to tackle a problem, or so forth.

It also depends on your own situation. If you don’t feel you’re taken as seriously as you should be or if you’re working on coming across more authoritatively, you’d want to pay more attention to this than if you’re doing just fine on those fronts.

There’s also the matter of what you’re really saying. If you’re proposing next steps that your boss needs to sign off on, then it doesn’t makes sense to declare “the next steps are…” (In that case, go with something like, “For next steps, I propose…”) But if you’re the one deciding on next steps, it’s probably clearer for other people if you just set out what those steps are.

Don’t get too hung up on “it feels like I’m stating something as an inarguable fact when in reality, there could always be a nuance or piece of information I’m missing.” Unless you’re going around making pronouncements about things you have no standing to opine on, it’s generally implicit that you’ll adjust your thinking if you become aware of something you hadn’t previously taken into account. (Definitely don’t get so hung up on it that you become this office.)

You should also pay attention to how people you admire in your organization write. If there’s a culture of softer communication, with lots of “I think” and “I believe,” then it’s usually helpful to be in sync with that. (Look at a broad range of people — people on your own level, people just above you, and people more senior — but most importantly, look at the people who are most successful there.)

If you’re still stumped, spend a couple of weeks taking qualifiers out of your emails unless a particular sentence feels truly jarring or wrong without them. See if it feels more natural once you’re more used to it. And/or spend a couple of weeks not thinking about it at all, and then go back and look at your emails and see if you see patterns that bother you.

As a general guideline, though, I wouldn’t worry terribly much about this! If you feel you’re taken seriously and what you say and write is generally respected, you’re doing fine.

{ 168 comments… read them below }

  1. The Real Persephone Mongoose*

    In general, I agree with AAM on this. I personally default to removing all qualifies but I’m a woman in tech industry where it is difficult to be taken seriously. It’s also the culture here to not use them. But if the culture of the company were to use them, I’d sprinkle a few more in although my own personal style is to not use them.

    1. Junior Dev*

      ooooh as a woman in tech I feel this so hard.

      It took me a long time to realize that for a lot of people in IT, the communication style is “make factual assertion, assume someone will interrupt and correct you if you’re wrong.” Obviously this gets really dysfunctional when people feel they can’t interrupt for some reason–but I’m on a team now where saying “hold on, actually, that’s not correct, how it really works is ____” and once I realized this and got used to it it made things a lot easier for me.

      The flip side of this is that you have to be really direct and assertive when saying things you know are true, and really actively correct people who misunderstand you or who assert with equal confidence things that you know to be wrong.

      To someone outside this culture it can look like really vicious arguments are happening but in my experience a big part of IT culture is that people care more about being correct (in a factual sense) than they do about avoiding making waves, and a big reason for that is that getting things wrong can lead to very expensive mistakes that I, the IT person, am often blamed for and always tasked for cleaning up.

      On my team this works out well because you can be really direct and people get that’s what you’re doing, but I’ve definitely worked places where there was a gendered double standard. I once got fired for being “abrasive” in a workplace where the men around me were constantly being sarcastic and mean, but because I insisted on taking the time to write code correctly I was the “abrasive” one.

      1. the Automator*

        As another woman in tech this is very familiar. In some ways a blunt communication style is effective: often, lots of exact details need to be communicated, and it’s much faster to just lay them all out and get corrected than it is to soften language and discuss things more generally. However this approach does not work for more open ended problems, and it’s easy to miscommunicate with other departments. Learning to code switch is essential if you (for example) work in a highly technical position but also need to talk with marketing.

        The part where women in particular are punished for communicating effectively in this environment, being called “abrasive” or similar, is some sexist bullshit. It’s also bullshit when people take advantage of the environment to be rude or condescending.

        1. JBI*

          I’m a middle aged white guy in tech (sales engineer), and I will sometimes use softer language in communications with customers. Internally I will be more forthright (I have no problem telling a sales person if something will or not work).
          But I had one occasion where a I was presenting something internally and I made a mistake. One of our young female interns noticed I was wrong, but didn’t say anything at the time… when she told me afterwards, I had to explain that I would rather be corrected than labor under a embarrassing misapprehension

      2. AbrasiveApparently*

        Oh god as a woman who recently got a lot of feedback on being “abrasive” that I’m certain was just sexist double standard nonsense, I cannot begin to explain how much I wish we could do wine and cheese together right now.

        But overall I agree – it’s more important for women to not defer, as we are socialized to do it and it hurts us in the work place.

          1. Jostling*


            I’ve been fired (from a non-tech job) for being abrasive, and now in tech I’m constantly doubting my own communication style.

            We need so much wine and so much cheese.

    2. JSPA*

      I use “default” a lot, to split the difference. And also try to give some indication where there might be flex, uncertainty, or the ability to pivot easily to some variation of the plan.

      “Based on P and Q, the default next steps are X, Y and Z. The frimfram team can get started full bore on X tomorrow. Jazmine will be laying the groundwork for Y over the next week. Expect reconfirmation of further details on monday. Completion of Y and details of Z are intentionally left open for now in case there’s a dramatic change in friday’s data that could shift us towards an alternate theme and delivery date for Y and Z.”

      1. Junior Dev*

        “default” seems confusing because it implies there’s some sort of universal standard. I think “tentative” may capture better what you’re going for here, but I’d want to put some language in after about what we’re waiting for, whether that’s approval from the person you’re emailing or some information from a third party.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          Maybe ‘usual’ or ‘normal’? ‘Tentative’ is much too tentative to replace ‘default’.

        2. Derjungerludendorff*

          It depends. If the next steps are clear and well known, then “default” works just fine. If any of those steps are conditional, you can still mention that afterwards.

        3. JSPA*

          “Default” can refer to your procedure or decision tree, not only to some platonic ideal. It’s another way of saying, “I’m making the obvious call, based on patterns as we currently know them” without a) stressing any residual uncertainty, which bogs people down and leaves then feeling inappropriately insecure and b) de- emphasizes the “I / me / my / mine” component, yet without undermining one’s authority.

          I could not comfortably work for someone who assigned jobs based on what they labeled “tentative” assessments, unless it turned out to be a linguistic quirk, rather than a refusal to make decisions.

  2. Enough*

    I have found recently that there are too many I thinks being used. If you use them all the time and multiply times in the same conversation, email, etc. it comes across to me as a lack of confidence or authority. It can sound like you aren’t sure what you know.

    1. Nope, not today*

      I realized I do this, so now I make sure to find a way to limit myself to using it only once per email so that it isnt too much (this is usually in a discussion of how we want to do something, where I’m genuinely presenting an opinion on what I think is the best route forward, but have no authority to just declare how we handle something without approval from above).

      1. Willis*

        Yes, same here. Once in awhile when it applies makes sense. Beginning every sentence with “I think….” is too much. I usually proofread emails and delete as needed!

    2. Dan*

      I’ve been trying to force myself to using stronger qualifiers, like “I recommend…” or “I advise…” in place of “I think…”. The outcome is roughly the same in terms of softening the tone, but my thoughts carry more weight.

      1. Junior Dev*

        this seems similar to me to the distinction between “in my opinion” and “in my professional opinion” — one seems like you’re hedging because of uncertainty or lack of confidence, the other seems like you’re qualifying your advice in a way that carries the weight of your professional experience and expertise.

      2. BookLady*

        This was going to be my suggestion, too. If I’m talking about something truly subjective, I’ll use “I think” or “It seems like.” But if I’m making a recommendation, I’ll say “I recommend” or “I suggest” to be a little more authoritative.

    3. Engineer Woman*

      Yep, this is me. I now actively try to refrain as much as possible, unless really needed, to say “I think”. I do now tend to use “it is my understanding that…”. Especially at a more senior level, I want to be taken seriously and “thinking” too much when no thinking is needed – it’s just fact! Own it! – can detract from your perceived authority.

    4. Graphic_designer*

      I’m a graphic designer/techie who moonlights at a non-profit doing a bit of everything (female, having a gender neutral name is awesome sometimes.)

      Not all qualifying language is created equal and taking the middle road between “I think” and “this is 100% fact” works well for me.

      I use “from my end, the next steps are”, or if I’m making a prediction of other people’s work – “I envision X or Y happening” – eg “I’d envision the funding being announced in late October.” With a non-profit I don’t always know everything for certain, although I’ve generally got a rough idea on key facts like dates etc.

      This frees me up to state facts as facts when I’m 100% sure – eg if the timeline has been set in stone, or i’m talking about my area of expertise, I can speak with authority and not undermine my own credibility by either qualifying everything, or asserting uncertain things (which, if you do enough of, will stop people taking you as speaking facts when you actually are.)

      Best of luck!

  3. That Lady in HR*

    I often find myself starting sentences with “My recommendation is . . “. It speaks to my professional expertise but leaves room for feedback.

    1. EnfysNest*

      I tend to use “My understanding is…” when I’m pretty sure about something, but it’s something I don’t have the final call on or some other reason not to be 100% firm. I feel like it’s more solid and fact-based than “I think”, but still leaves room if some new information has just developed that I haven’t been told yet or if I somehow misinterpreted something I was told or anything like that.

      1. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s SuperAnon*

        This is my go-to and fairly common in my field (engineering) for all the reasons you mentioned. And when I’m corrected or someone adds more information, “thank you for clarifying” is a good way of accepting the information instead of apologizing for not knowing it.

      2. Lis*

        My usual is “I believe that this is the case” and if I have a handy link available link it, if I don’t have the link to hand I just say the believe bit and ask for the reference for why I’m wrong as in “I believe the answer is X but if anyone knows why I’m mistaken please let me know”
        This has lead to my grand boss when someone said something and they questioned it and first person said “well I asked Lis about it” saying “oh I am obviously incorrect”

    2. WFHGal*

      I used to work for an agency, and we were told explicitly to come with options and make a recommendation. So that’s what I always do now.

    3. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*


      “I’m also fond of “my thoughts are”, “my plan is to” and “how I intend to go forward is”.

      1. another Hero*

        Yeah, “I’m planning on X,” “I’d recommend X,” “I want to advocate for X” are similar language that feels a little more comfortable to me, a person in my 20s but don’t make me feel like I’m undercutting what I’m saying. If I’m not sure about actual information, I figure it’s best to say so; I’d use these for a decision other people had ownership in too. If it’s just on me, “I’ll X” (or “I’m looking for X”) is fine. Sometimes with my boss, “I’ll X unless you’d rather I Y.” But there are definitely times when I say I think (or even the dreaded “I feel like”)–when collaborating with peers, when trying something out or offering a suggestion or acknowledging that I am working with limited data. It can help to consider whether removing the qualifying language might make things easier for your interlocutor – if they’re looking for information from you, “I think” might make them feel they need to look elsewhere. But if they’re looking for your opinion, “I think” can indicate that you’re offering it while leaving the decision to them.

        1. Smithy*

          These are wonderful suggestions in both using softening language but not deflecting authority.

          I’m also in institutional fundraising and work with a lot of restricted grants. A common approach I’ll use that’s well understood by project teams is “Best practice means we should/would do X.” With grants management there are a lot of decisions that can be wildly out your control – i.e. if a project spends down on time. So making statements like “As this is our first grant with X, best practice would have us spend down and report by the agreed upon deadlines. If we truly can not, then I recommend ensuring we only ask for one no cost extension two months before the close of the project. Let me know if this presents challenges we can further discuss.”

          Basically, setting up what “perfect” behavior would be but opening for the door for things beyond your control.

        2. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

          “if they’re looking for information from you, “I think” might make them feel they need to look elsewhere.”

          This! I was on the receiving end of one of those the other day. I’d opened a ticket to ask for some info, and after a bit of clarifying discussion, the answer came back “I believe the limit is X”. And I looked at that sentence and I was like, “well, _is_ it?”. The use of “I believe” left me genuinely in doubt about whether I could trust the answer, or whether I ought to reply again asking for someone to double-check it.

          I suspect the person answering me was genuinely hedging a tiny bit in case they were mistaken, as opposed to using “I believe” as a figure of speech. But I’m not the person who could correct them, otherwise I wouldn’t have opened the ticket in the first place!

    4. Double A*

      I also think writing a declarative message but ending with something like, “If there are additional or alternative steps you’d recommend, let me know” can be helpful. That leaves the door open to that nuance and indicates a willingness to different perspectives or corrections, but suggests you feel confident in your plan otherwise.

      1. consultinerd*

        I find myself ending similarly, e.g. “… that’s my take, let me know if there’s something I’m missing.” I often catch myself starting declaratively and realize along the way I’m not quite as sure as I thought I was!

      2. Anja*

        This is often the direction I take. I end any e-mails with “If you have any concerns about the above please let me know by X” or more casually “thoughts?” depending on my audience.

    5. juliebulie*

      I do the same. And if I have doubts, I explain them. If I think my statement is likely to be challenged, I am ready to explain how I came to my conclusions. But “I think” sounds more like “haha, maybe, who knows” to me.

  4. Jess*

    Make it clear whether the decision has already been made (i.e. you’re just softening the language to say you will consider input if there’s something you’ve missed, but otherwise people can go ahead and take action based on the info in your email), or if you are looking for input (i.e. you are saying “I think” to invite people to brainstorm… in which case you should probably explicitly ask for that rather than implying it).

  5. Kimmy Schmidt*

    Man, “we’re out of toner” office feels like it was years ago. That letter was only in July???

    I’ve been consciously trying to note where I use qualifiers like this, not necessarily because it undermines me, but I want to use them sparingly so they remain effective.

    1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      I’m sorry, do you mean “we’re out of toner” OFFICE, or “we’re out of toner” INDIVIDUAL? Who, exactly, is out of toner in the instance to which you are referring?

        1. The Vulture*

          My understanding is that they are doing the the thing from the letter, where they find anything even a little bit colloquial wildly unclear.

        2. Kimmy Schmidt*

          I believe Tequila & Oxford Commas was making a joke about the absurdity in fighting over such nitpicky language details, based on that letter.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Please also ensure you include the exact brand and serial number of the toner to which you are referring.

      1. Elenna*

        Same, I was *sure* that letter was years ago! Even though, now that I think about it, I’ve only been reading AAM for just over a year… Earlier today I was referring to something in March 2019 and I had to triple-check the date because I was like “no way, that had to be at least two years ago”. Time has just ceased to exist as a concept, I guess.

  6. Merci Dee*

    With regards to the idea of nuance or something that you’re missing, there’s separate phrasing that may be useful for that. My office has several procedures in place to handle different routine business transactions. But, as is sometimes the case, there are exceptions or nuance that could influence how the situation is handled. When I’m describing next steps in those situations, my go-to phrase is, “in general, next steps are . . . “. This lets the other party know how our procedure is laid out, but implies that there could be circumstances where those procedures are altered. That’s then their cue to let me know if something needs to be taken into consideration.

    I will never never give up the phrases “it appears to me that”, “it looks to me like”, “my conclusion is”, or “what what I understand . . . .” because those phrases do such an excellent job of saying that, based on the information that I know, this is the conclusion that I’ve drawn. They don’t state that the situation is definitively this, or is 100% that — just that I’ve looked at the information I’ve been given, and this is what I understand about the lay of the land; your conclusions or results may differ from mine. Those phrases might be weasel words, but I don’t care. I love them.

  7. Mel_05*

    I often use qualifiers and try to soften my language on purpose, because I know I tend to come across as terse, especially via email.

    At my previous job I was also known for having super strong opinions, so I tried to soften my emails to counter balance that.

    At my current job I don’t need to do as much of that, because my opinions are more in step with the company in general.

    1. Sharon*

      This applies to me as well (I’m a woman). I’ve had to learn to soften my approach, especially because I now live in a different area than the “values directness” place where I grew up. I have to consciously soften my emails or people think I’m upset or that I think they are way out of line and it hurts my working relationships with them.

    2. Callie*

      Would you provide examples of what language you used?

      I have been told by my employer to soften my language, but have not been provided with any go to phrases beyond ‘I know you are busy’. At this point I have been told I need new stuff but again, they won’t provide it.

      Any help is appreciated.

  8. Ann O'Nemity*

    Years ago I read an article that women were far more likely to use “I think” than men were. The article suggested it undermined women, and made them sound unsure, less confident, and weak. I resolved to use “I think” less often, especially when I was stating a fact or something I was highly confident of.

    Over time, I’ve starting thinking that the flip side is true too. Men should start using “I think” more often! Especially when they’re stating their opinion as a fact.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Yeah, those articles are garbage. Women who don’t add softeners are punished for sounding terse, hostile, and bitchy.

      It’s much easier to leave them in and deal with the consequences of sounding wishy-washy, than it is to deal with the consequences of being labeled hostile and aggressive.

      1. chaco*

        This, exactly. My personal style is not to use softeners, but I find that I have to add them in or else deal with a whole host of Man Feelings and negative labels in response. At first I thought it was just me, but then I realized the people reacting poorly to me were not reacting poorly to men saying the same thing as me.

        1. Kat in VA*

          Every now and then, just for giggles, I will take an email I’ve written (before I’ve sent it) and strip out every softener and modifier I can find.

          All of the “I think, I feel, it seems like, maybe, kinda, sorta, this might be wrong but, I could be wrong but” and other associated phrases, words, and (especially) emojis designed to soften tone and not sound assertive get yanked right out.

          The resultant emails are so baldly brash and bold in appearance and tone that I ultimately replace at minimum *some* modifiers/softeners so it doesn’t look/feel/read as if I’m barking military orders.

          Which I shouldn’t have to do, but I’m a woman and in administrative support, where we live and die by having a high EQ and getting along with everyone/not ruffling feathers.

          (I really wanted to say “…generally live and die by…” but I wanted to see if I could write this reply without softeners or modifiers and dang, it’s hard.)

      2. Nesprin*

        Yup. Female in engineering, and my current line management has asked me to soften my language to avoid sounding like a hostile woman. (the horrors!)

        The circular thinking around sexism is exhausting.

        (Women do X, and women are discriminated against) does not imply (If women don’t do X they wont be discriminated against).
        Sometimes it means (women are discriminated against so they do X to compensate), or (women are discriminated against whether or not they do X)

        1. BeenThere*

          Yup. I’m a deeply experience woman in software engineering. I have been yelled at point blank when simply stating what the agreed API was. Apparently yelling at the assertive woman is the common man-child feeling to hearing truth and facts. The management response was that I should take the man-child to coffee.

          Unsurprisingly I changed teams a year ago and deliberately filtered for a more direct team. This week my grand boss thanked me for being direct with him in a conversation. I decided to work even harder upon hearing that, I’d be worried I’d been shooting my mouth off too frequently in meetings. I now have to assume he would equally direct back.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I vividly remember when I was in law school and heard the class know-it-all very positively state something that I knew was wrong, and realizing that just because people say something definitively doesn’t mean they’re right! Because I would never have stated something as a fact that I had any doubt about. And I would argue that didn’t make me “less confident,” it made me more accurate.

      1. hbc*

        I’ve fallen into that trap myself–“no one would say such a thing if they weren’t sure, right?” I learned but then ended up at a company that somehow as an organization had that belief. As in, people were pretty savvy individually, but simply declaring “Sales must not have entered the order right, purchasing would never ignore the demand” made it a fact. Maddening.

      2. TechWorker*

        Honestly, when I’ve heard someone assert something incorrect strongly it makes them DIVE in my estimation and I find it difficult to take what they say at face value.

        As a woman in tech I do sometimes deliberately remove qualifiers but also stress less about it now that I’m a bit more senior/managing and generally have my opinions respected. If I say to someone ‘I’m pretty sure x is the case but not 100%’ that means they’ll assume I’m right but double check, vs assuming I’m wrong and ignoring what I just said. (Maybe some junior men start their careers with this level of ‘benefit of doubt’, maybe not, but it makes the whole thing less of a problem!)

        1. BeenThere*

          Yes. The instant I can tell that they were wrong about something they insisted they were the expert on they go into the zero trust bucket which happens to coincide with the lets document key things bucket.

  9. Agent at large*

    Interested in people’s thoughts on ending emails with “does that make sense?”. I often see this dismissed as unnecessary, feminine qualifying language, but I use it a lot when talking to clients to make it clear that they can ask me follow up questions if they don’t understand anything. Or am I undermining myself?

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I would avoid that phrasing. It makes it seem like you don’t trust your own knowledge and may be rambling. I usually end with “let me know if you have any questions or need clarification.” Same message, but with more confidence.

    2. Littorally*

      I often do it verbally when I’m laying out a process, providing instructions, or giving background information; those are cases where it is an explicit check for understanding. Otherwise, I would avoiding using the “make sense” framing, as it suggests that you aren’t sure your suggestions are logical. Instead, I might say “Does that seem like the best way to proceed?” or “What are your thoughts?”

    3. EnfysNest*

      I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but, yes – for me “Does that make sense?” comes across as more self-doubting than what you’re going for. I think “Please let me know if you have any further questions or comments.” in email or “Does that answer all your questions?” in a conversation gets that same message across in a more formal way.

    4. Merci Dee*

      I usually just tack a “Let me know if you have any questions or need more information” at the end of my email. I generally prefer this phrasing because it puts the ball in their court to follow up if necessary, but also allows them to not respond if they don’t need to. If I saw “Does that make sense?” at the end of someone’s email, I would feel that I needed to follow up to let them know everything was clear, even if I didn’t need anything else from them in the way of explanation. It almost seems like another step is necessary to conclude the conversation.

    5. Annony*

      I use it when speaking, but I wouldn’t use it in an email. In email, I think that ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss’s wording is better.

    6. Ann O'Nemity*

      In emails, I usually say, “Please let me know if you have any questions.”

      I’ll occasionally use, “Does that make sense” or something similar in person when people look confused.

    7. Your Weird Uncle*

      I do it sometimes – usually when it’s a message to someone with whom I have a fairly good rapport and in instances where I’m outlining something a bit more complicated than usual. Although I tend to use it in a self-deprecating manner because sometimes when I’m on the receiving end of an email like that, I’ll sometimes grumble that of COURSE it makes sense, I’m not a dummy!

    8. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      When members of my team are asking questions that require explanation, I usually finish up with “does that make sense” (either verbally or in emails) because quite a few of them are not real good at saying, unprompted, “Hey, I’m still a little unclear on that, can we go over it again?” but if I ask them if they’ve got it, they’ll tell me no if they’re still shaky. So to me, “Does that make sense” is basically a specific invitation for further questions, from people who (as best I can tell) don’t want to take up too much of my time. (It’s not just me, they do the same thing with my co-lead, with our manager, with each other, with outside trainers, I think my team is just made up of people who would rather muddle through than bother anybody else with questions, heh. We’re Midwestern, they’re mostly very Guess types and I am very Ask, so I Ask them because I suck at Guessing and then they answer truthfully.)

    9. notacompetition*

      The only time I use “does that make sense” is when I can’t say “listen, you idiot, do you understand what I’m asking?”

        1. MayLou*

          I said a variation of this multiple times the other day. Finally I said that I’d put my question in an email to someone else, because it became clear that my ability to phrase the question clearly wasn’t the weak link in our communication.

    10. Mr. Cajun2core*

      I am a white male and I use that phrase often both in speech and in email. I also use the variation of it, “I hope that makes sense” or “Do you understand what I am saying?”.

      I used it just a few minutes ago. A repair person (male) was working on my dishwasher. I asked him a question about how it worked. Then I asked, “Do you understand what I am asking?” For me, especially when I can’t get the words out right to fit the thought in my head, it is just more of a clarification that what I said made sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. :-)

      I don’t read any more into it than, “Did what I say just make any sense because I am not sure that I phrased it as best as I could have.”

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I think tone is everything here. When my boss says to me, “Do you understand?” he absolutely means, “You don’t know as much as I do, do you actually get it?” and the tone is the whole thing. When I say, “Do you get what I’m asking?” or “Do you get what I’m trying to say?” it’s usually with my face kind of scrunched up and the tone is more… lacking in confidence, I guess. It’s a fine line, for sure, but one worth taking care not to step over.

      2. Aquawoman*

        “Do you understand” is about the listener, “does that make sense” is (implicitly) about the speaker. I find them completely different in nuance.

          1. Mr. Cajun2core*

            However, as I said, today I used “Do you understand what I am asking.” I meant it as “Was that clear” but I said, “Do you understand…”

            Sometimes they do mean the same, at least me me. (qualifier).

    11. Mr. Shark*

      Sometimes, quite honestly, I use that in the opposite way. I’ve describe the answer several times, and I’m losing my mind because they can’t figure out what I’m saying, so I close with “does that make sense?”
      As in, do you finally understand what I and others have been trying to tell you multiple times.?

      1. anon for this*

        Yeah, I guess I naturally don’t see it as about being about the speaker at all. But perhaps that’s because I was a math teacher for years. I know what I said makes sense if you understand what I’m talking about. But if you don’t understand what I’m talking about — you don’t know what a Gaussian process is — it’s not gonna make sense, and I would like to know if we’re in that situation so I can try a different explanation.

    12. Kara S*

      I use this when speaking, especially when training new team members. I usually mean it as “do you understand what I just said?”. I like to know that I’m not going too fast, especially when I’m training them on complicated software or processes.

      In writing, I use it more to mean “does this logically make sense as our next step” and I use it far less often.

    13. Legal Beagle*

      I used to use “I hope this makes sense!” a lot, but then I read (on here, I think) that people find it condescending! Now I feel a little nervous about it, although it does work well in context, where I’m talking to people about technical issues. Alternative: “Please let me know if anything isn’t clear / if you run into any issues / if you have any questions.”

    14. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I use “does that make sense?” frequently.

      Because if what I’ve tried to tell you makes no sense, I have completely failed to communicate and need to start over–after I apologize for wasting your time with babble.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        This is how I use the phrase as well.

        My primary work task is a complex one that most of my colleagues don’t grasp at the same level that I do – but they need the data, and they need to understand how it was derived, in order to do their jobs. So when they ask a question, I take the time to explain the answer thoroughly, breaking it down into small pieces and covering them in sequence, because I know that otherwise it will all go over their heads. And even then, about half the time the other person still doesn’t quite get their head around the concept. If we are talking face-to-face, I can see that baffled, deer-in-the-headlights expression and I know I need to pull back and start over, but in an email, I always end with “Does that make any sense? I know it’s a really complex subject, so please let me know if I lost you in the weeds there – I’ll be happy to try to break it down further.”

    15. hbc*

      It’s a little…dangerous, because it can be interpreted both as self-doubting (“I don’t think I explained this clearly but I don’t know how to fix it!”) and as insulting (“here’s a simple concept, did your tiny brain comprehend it?”). Also, maybe this is just me, but ending with a question prompts another email that’s not entirely necessary if I now have the info I need.

      I usually prefer something like “Let me know if you have any questions” or “I’m happy to discuss this in more detail” since that ends the exchange if they got what they needed. Otherwise, if you *expect* them to be confused, I’d actually add some context for *why* it might not make sense–“I know this is a lot of information” or “Our terminology might be unfamiliar” or “A lot of people need to talk through step 3 before it makes sense.”

    16. DrSalty*

      I use this frequently when talking but for email I always default to “let me know if you have questions.” The difference imo is when speaking, the information exchange is happening live so the person can quickly give feedback. With the email phrasing you can assume they get it if they don’t respond.

    17. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

      My husband says this all the time and it drives me nuts. Somehow it comes across as condescending, but YMMV.

  10. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I agree with Alison and I would avoid the qualifiers unless the situation specifically calls for it. I generally end emails in a way that allows others to point out something I may have missed or other ideas I may not have thought of if I’m stating facts or something that’s been documented and needs to be followed.

    “Let me know if I’m misunderstanding…”
    “Let me know if I’ve missed something…”
    “Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions…”

    1. Ominous Adversary*

      Good suggestion. This helps soften the dilemma that if you’re a woman and you are straightforward, you often get painted as aggressive and unpleasant in a way a man would not, but if you use qualifiers then you’re wishy-washy.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Speaking of being grateful for my boss (my new one, not TCMMGFMB’s boss)….
      Mine has been willing to read through emails I need to send “up the food chain” –with me on a videocall as I edit them. I see her doing a lot like you & Alison suggest. She has me take out “I think” unless I’ve been asked for an opinion, and she adds a request for feedback & new information at the end.
      She’s very effective , but I do know that she & some people elsewhere in the company management have butted heads, so I’m still likely to soften a bit more than she does when I’m on my own emails.

    3. Anononon*

      I think the third option is a million times better than the first two. If I were to get an email that ended with either of the first two, I would immediately re-read it to see if there were any errors/issues, and I would generally be more suspect about it. The third one doesn’t immediately state that (general) you could be wrong, but invites other people to add any comments or thoughts.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        I think the first 2 can work depending on the context. You don’t want to come across as a know it all who thinks they’re never ever wrong about anything, and those phrases allow for some wiggle room because things don’t always come across as you intended over email.

    4. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I use “let me know if I misunderstood” when I am 100% certain that I did not misunderstand and the person I’m emailing with is being a complete twit.

      I use “If I understood correctly” when I’m trying to put the technical jargon my operation contact used in their email into plain language for communicating to non-operational readers.

      Language is fun :)

  11. oranges*

    I find that if I “soften” the beginning and end of my emails, (“Good morning and happy Friday!”/”Thanks for your help, and let me know if you have questions”) I’m more comfortable keeping the meat of the email more declarative:

    Statement. Statement. Statement.


    Statement. Statement. Statement.

    The important stuff stays the same, but the overall email is less cold and direct to the recipient.

    1. laughingrachel*

      Yeah perfect place for the

      Stay Gold,

      sign off that still lives rent free in my head.

    2. Ama*

      Yes, this is how I adjusted when I arrived at my current job from a place that was so strict on “just business” communication that exclamation points in emails were frowned upon. A lot of people at my current job use softer language than I do throughout, but I’ve found if I have a conversational opener and closer I blend in pretty well.

  12. drpuma*

    I tend to look for how many qualifiers I’m using in an email rather than whether I’m using them at all. I try not to have more than one or maybe two in an email depending on the length. The thing I’ve found is that once I remove the qualifiers from one sentence, I realize the others will sound just fine without them as well.

    1. beanie gee*

      I do the same thing!

      For me, reducing the clarifiers is more about being more clear and concise rather than coming across without authority.

      When I write an email I use WAY too many words. I try to go back through the email and edit and I almost always end up taking out unnecessary words. And then my emails are so much more clear.

  13. azvlr*

    I find that I start writing something with a qualifier, which prompts me to check if the information is accurate. Once I do that I can usually remove the qualifiers. They are often a good starting point though.

    Example: It seems like the widgets that go here should be different.
    After checking the materials (which I’ll admit sometimes takes some time), I have a better understanding why a particular widget was used there, and can more accurately request clarification for the ones that are incorrect.

    Revised example: After checking the document, I noticed that widgets 1-6 were mislabeled. I have corrected this. 11-15 are correct. Can you please upload 7-10?

  14. Mid*

    Interestingly, I’m facing the opposite issue. My job often involves telling my bosses and big clients they’re wrong, and I’m known for being a blunt communicator, and I’m working on softening up my emails a bit.

    I think context matters. The higher up the chain you are, the less qualifying language you should use. If you’re in a role that involves a lot of ego-soothing, you probably need to use a good amount of qualifying language. Prior to my current position, I worked in donor relations, which involves a lot of ego soothing, so I had to get much better at softening my communication to make corrections feel like suggestions, not attacks.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      You make a really important distinction here. A number of commenters earlier were discussing being women in tech and all the special frustrations around communications there (which I totally agree are real), because in IT, code is either right or it’s wrong, the network is either up or it’s not, and there isn’t really any grey area to soften with “I think.” And it’s infuriating when managers and male colleagues insist on qualifiers in a woman’s communication about technical facts.

      On the other hand, the OP mentioned that she does grant administration at a non-profit, and that realm is a whole lot fuzzier/squishier than tech is. It’s all about semantics, interpreting the grantor’s requirements (which are NOT always clearly communicated) and figuring out how to describe the non-profit’s activities to show that they met those requirements. And I can completely see why a young person relatively new to the profession would lean toward using a lot of qualifiers in their communication.

      That said, I do very much like some of the options suggested here (e.g. “Best practices for our next steps would be…” or “If this benchmark is not achieved by X date, my recommendation would be…”) as alternatives to “I think.” The phrasing of those alternatives just carries more weight of confidence and knowledge, while still conveying that the issue is not a black/white one.

      1. Alianora*

        Yes, I have to say – I work adjacent to my organization’s grants office. There is some variety in speech style, but overall I’ve noticed most of the grants people use a lot of qualifying language.

        Some people use so many qualifiers that when I get to the end of the sentence, I’m not sure what their actual recommendation is. Obviously, that isn’t ideal, but one or two softeners are definitely expected in an email. I prefer the ones that use language like, “My recommendation is….” or “My understanding is…” instead of “I could be wrong…”

  15. Dan*

    I’m a dude in tech, and I use softening language. I also appreciate it when I read it. If something is declarative, I take it as inarguable fact, or something close to it. So I find it necessary to point out where there can be uncertainty (and to what level) it may be.

    To me, “I think”, for lack of a better description, is the weakest softener. As in “I’m highly uncertain about this.” I use it very sparingly.

  16. nnn*

    I find that sometimes when I feel moved to say “I think”, it can be more accurate and useful to say *why* I think that. Sometimes, depending on syntax, the whole thing can be outright replaced by the reason.


    I think we should reschedule the meeting to next week.

    Why do I think that? Because this week is back to school, and a lot of the meeting attendees are parents who going to have last-minute things they need to take care of.

    So I say “This week is back to school, and a lot of the people who need to attend the meeting are parents.” I can add something assertive (“Let’s do next week instead”) or mitigative (“I wonder if it might be a better idea to do next week instead?”) or just let the statement hang there and lead others to arrive at the conclusion.

    Benefits: I’m contributing relevant information to the conversation, I’m not weakening what I’m trying to say, and I’m also not arguing with what anyone else is saying.

    If you find that the reasons are irrelevant or not useful (as they might be in the “The next steps are…” example), that may be a sign that the “I think” qualifier is unnecessary.

  17. Circe*

    The nature of my job is that we always hedge what we say, so one thing I’ve found to be helpful is to be really precise on why I’m hedging.

    For example, “I think we should do X next” is different from “I believe the typical process is to do J next, but I think X makes more sense” vs “We didn’t discuss next steps, but X is typical” vs “If I recall our Aug. 31 conversation, we decided to do X next instead of Y.”

    In general, I think (heh) it’s important to differentiate between situations where you’re offering an opinion, a recommendation, a recollection, or a preliminary conclusion. And if your statement isn’t one of those, you should be fine to declarative away!

    1. juliebulie*

      Yes! I try to be careful about how I qualify statements to make clear how much doubt or certainty there is, or if I’m just stating an opinion or preference.

  18. Your Weird Uncle*

    Fellow grants administrator here! Our field is notorious (well, among us, anyway!) for having a LOT of nuance and sometimes few hard & fast rules. (For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a joke that the most common answer to questions is ‘it depends’.) So I totally get the urge to use ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’, etc.

    On the other hand, as I’ve found myself a few more years into the role and with more experience under my belt, I find that my tone has gradually become more direct and I’m less afraid of giving answers to PIs, etc. that are simple and (somewhat) authoritative. I think that’s just come, for me, anyway, as I gained confidence and experience in the role.

    The annoying flip side to that is when you give a simple, authoritative answer and then someone else down the line contradicts you and/or proves you wrong. That just happened to me five minutes ago, ugh….

    1. Smithy*

      I do agree that overall grants administration is one where “I think” language is far more common because there is variation in how agreements and partnerships are interpreted. Whether it’s balancing language of “I think” with “My understanding/interpretation/suggestion is” – it’s a sector where there will regularly remain qualifiers.

      I have one agreement where I’m forever telling people to not bother with the contract because unless we’re audited/in legal trouble – nothing about how we need to function or report is explained in the contract. It’s all been determined via phone calls, emails and interpretation. So no one is ever going to truly be able to say “this is the one and only right way”, but it’s finding ways to put authority behind why your opinion matters.

    2. LooseyGoosey*

      Echoing this! I’ve been in grants administration for (well) over a decade, and ours is a field that runs on soft language and qualifiers.

      I’m not as young as I was when I started in this field, but several years ago I worked to remove “minimizers” from my emails – “just” and “if you can”, for example. I try to strike a balance between being firm without being inflexible. But the nature of the work absolutely requires a combination of policy knowledge AND a knowledge of when policy goes out the window (or doesn’t exist) – so softeners and qualifiers tend to be fairly important.

    3. OP*

      OP here – yes! You’re exactly right that being in grants administration plays into it. I’m relatively new to my organization and I’ve had to catch up on all the history of each grant, and it is my first role dealing primarily with grants. It really is so nuanced too. I realize more and more how rules are not completely set and that funders can bend them or change their mind. That definitely influences my instinct to qualify statements, since while I’m stating something, I’m also thinking about the exceptions.

      Thank you everyone for all the great suggestions and responses! I love discussions like this about language and nuance at work. Also, I love that Alison linked to the “we’re out of toner” office, because I think about that post all the time which is probably not surprising given my overthinking-about-language question.

  19. Delta Delta*

    You really need to know your industry. I’m a criminal defense lawyer. I send active voice subject-verb emails. I had a mental health counselor melt right down on me when I sent a 2-sentence email asking for information because “Hi Persephone, Did Fergus show up on Friday? Thanks -DD” was too harsh. On the flip side, Persephone’s emails to me that were always several paragraphs of saying very little are standard for her practice. Find your balance.

    1. Dan*

      “Persephone’s emails to me that were always several paragraphs of saying very little are standard for her practice.”

      How do they get anything done? Emails that long saying nothing are rarely clear enough to the true point across.

      And how did that person melt down? WTF? What did she want you to write?

      1. Delta Delta*

        Her response to me was essentially (and I can’t remember exactly and I don’t have that job anymore so I don’t have the email account) that she felt my email was too harsh and that she felt like I “had her on the stand for cross examination.” And she never answered whether Fergus showed up. My response was to say I just wanted confirmation if he showed up.

        The postscript was that we had to be in court for something about the matter, and she was present, as she was a part of an interdisciplinary treatment court team. I explained to the judge that I asked for the information, but that Persephone didn’t answer that question in her response. The judge turned to Persephone and said, “did Fergus show up on Friday?” exactly the same way I had asked in my email. She also asked why she didn’t answer and when Persephone said that I was rude in my email, the judge asked her to read the email. She did, and the judge pointed out that was exactly also her question.

        1. Pennyworth*

          Persephone is an idiot. Being clear and concise saves time and misunderstanding, and in the law time is money. I avoid using think and believe because they are personal opinions and have no authority.

    2. Admins, can't find good ones*

      I’ve received emails that consisted only of questions or requests in the subject line. My colleagues travel a lot and dictate emails into their phones when they think of something. I love how direct it is! Less word clutter to dig through to find the question.

      Others on my team need a softer, wordier approach.

      1. WFH with Cat*

        Oh, I loved subject-line messages with one team I worked on – so quick and easy! (We always added “no other message” so the recipient would know they didn’t need to open the email.)

        Today, of course, most people text or chat, which does essentially the same thing.

        1. Kat in VA*

          I do something similar.

          TO: John Jones
          RE: Are we meeting at 2:00PM today? EOM

          Where EOM means End Of Message – so no need to even open the email.

          My Engineering and Professional Services folks LOVE IT but they are also folks with an economy of language. My Sales folks find it more off-putting.

        2. Alianora*

          One of my coworkers always puts the question in the subject line – I find his emails a little confusing sometimes, just because he’s the only one in our office who does that and I’m used to skimming the email body for the action item. But I do appreciate his efficiency.

    3. hbc*

      Sometimes your position relative to the other person has a strong effect. Our controller was just telling me that he gets fearful responses all the time from straightforward questions, like “How does this process work?” In his mind, no big deal, he was trying to explain something about a process flow to someone and wanted to make sure he was right about how the part got made. But to the guy making the part, the man who controls all the money and who is tasked with finding irregularities just showed up to poke around in what he was doing.

      Realistically, “Where are you headed?” is a different question if it comes from a gas station clerk or a cop.

  20. galena11*

    I use a Chrome addon called Just Not Sorry to flag qualifiers in emails. It just underlines them so you are aware of it, then can choose to remove or not. I love it.

  21. EGA*

    Sometimes I like to use “As far as I can tell the next steps are….” or something like that. “My understanding is that the next steps are….”

    Also a young woman in the work place, although I know I am well respected. Our office culture is one with a lot of confusion where one person might direct you to do one thing and then a day later someone else says to do it a different way. These phrasings try to get most specifically at the issue as a way to wrap up a long string of different inputs and sometimes varying opinions on how to proceed.

    If it is something I have absolute authority over I will just say “The next steps are…”

    1. mreasy*

      I work in an industry where there isn’t much precise knowledge (?) – things are always changing and there are so many rules/etc to remember that I default to “my understanding is,” because there are so many reasons unrelated to my authority level that I could be wrong.

  22. Bostonian*

    I like the idea of looking back at old emails to see if anything strikes you. There’s something about seeing your email in the published format that the other person saw that helps give you a better idea of the impression/way you came across.

  23. lafcolleen*

    if you don’t feel comfortable with just deleting the “I think” language, use other language that is concrete but makes it clear that you are open to feedback on changing the process

    instead of “I think the next steps are . ..”

    I will do x by y date and I propose that Fergus do z and Sansa do zz by y date.

    if you’ve already checked in with Sansa and Fergus, say that and confirm what they’ve committed to

    ( Sansa zz by y date and Fergus is checking in with Bob to see if task z can be done on that timeline.)

  24. Abogado Avocado*

    There is another option: it’s the subjunctive tense, well known to those who speak any Romance language. The subjunctive softens without making the speaker look wishy washy or weak. You can use it this way: “If we were to commit to this course of action, the next steps would be Action A, Action B, and Action C, which would incur Costs B while gaining Advantage C.” If you want to remember the construction, think of the song, “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof.

  25. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

    I use qualifiers allllll the time. I did worry that I was undermining myself or coming across as less than confident, until I realized that I am known for being opinionated/decisive AND for being a warm relationship-builder, both of are significant factors in my professional success. When writing to internal folks, which I almost always am, the former balances out the latter. Without some qualifiers, I’m pretty sure I would come across as arrogant or bossy (“bossy” being an issue when I’m communicating up the ladder, not when I am, y’know, someone’s actual boss).

    I also value collaboration and consensus, which is an asset in my role, so using the softer language both communicates that I’m open to input and makes it easier to get certain high-level folks on board who would otherwise bristle at being told what to do by a woman with only one academic degree to her name. (Guess who’s in academia?)

  26. notacompetition*

    Once when I was new at my old job, I sent a detailed email to my boss, a senior female executive, proposing an idea. I explained why it was a good idea, how it would benefit the company, the cost, etc. I was super nervous. Her reponse:


    No period, even. Just “yes” and in that moment I felt incredibly free. I realized I could embrace brevity at this job and that my new boss APPRECIATED brevity. It was an incredible feeling. I stopped saying “I hope this email finds you well” or other pleasantries and just wrote emails like “Hi Xanthippe, do you want to set up a meeting about the stone columns account? Thanks, (signature)” and it was a huge turning point for me as a professional woman!

    1. Anonya*

      Ha! I have totally been on the receiving end of that email. My current boss is very short, focused, and to-the-point in her emails. If you don’t know her well, it could come across as curt, but it’s really not. She’s just laser-direct. I have adjusted mine to match.

    2. You bet I'm incognito for this*

      Her response: “Yes.” No period, even. Just “yes” and in that moment I felt incredibly free. I realized I could embrace brevity at this job …

      I dream of writing and sending a work-related email without “I hope this day finds you well,” exclamation points, “Please let me know if you have any other questions” and other such softeners.

      I deal with newspaper letters to the editor and reader commentaries. I spend a lot of time each day (figuratively) hand holding and explaining that:

      We can’t run everything we receive. (Especially if you’ve sent us a letter endorsing Cecil Mongoose for city slug adjudicator and we’ve just run four other letters endorsing Cecil Mongoose.)

      We don’t just take letters from Republicans (or Democrats).

      We can’t take your 2,500-word op-ed when our limit is 600 words. (“It’s a lot better than what you usually publish!” — yes, people have said this to me.)

      We can’t publish two letters by you in one week so you can rebut someone who disagreed with your first letter.

  27. AthenaC*

    It definitely depends on the situation! As a woman, I want to be taken seriously, but as a client service professional who leads internal teams of folks, I don’t want to alienate people.

    I have one client whom I LOVE working with because he is direct to the point of abrasive (I legit have to warn new team members about him) … but I can also be direct to the point of abrasive right back. In fact, he prefers it. So he and I always communicate directly, clearly, and efficiently.

    That approach works with exactly no one else, though.

    What I tend to do a lot over email is:

    1) Start with a thank-you (i.e. thanks for providing the documents / thanks for your time / thanks for confirming that info)
    2) Say “from where I sit, the next steps are:” (This is definitive language but softened by acknowledging perspective)
    3) Tell them when you need it and ask them to confirm that works. “I will need this by COB today so I can turn around for your final review and filing by noon tomorrow. Will that work?” (Another case of definitive language softened by seeking consent for the timeline)
    4) “Let me know your thoughts”

    Other things I do when I need cooperation from folks:

    1) “Would you be okay with X alternative? It’s been my experience that this accomplishes Y and avoids Z.”
    2) “Here’s the plan I drafted. Can you let me know what changes you think we need to make? Am I forgetting anything?” (I do this a lot because I do forget things from time to time)

    I could keep going, but hopefully you find that helpful!

  28. Admins, can't find good ones*

    I try to leave out qualifiers whenever possible. Then I might go in and add a couple depending on the audience. I am an SME at my company and have to show authority and confidence when I message the team.

    The one thing I try to use very, very sparingly? An apology. Unless I’m actually apologizing for something I’ve done, I try to avoid “I’m sorry”. I have colleagues who constantly apologize, and it makes me cringe.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Often the over-apologists have had it literally beaten into them as children. I’ve seen many abused individuals, both men and women resort to constant apologies because if they hadn’t learned to do that, they would have been abused even worse.

  29. Chris*

    I’m a young female scientist in a male-dominated field. My use of qualifiers really depends upon who I’m emailing. My boss gets very direct emails. My grand-boss–more qualifiers.
    If you’re concerned you are using these words too much, some web browsers have a filter for passive words. (I use chrome and have the Just Not Sorry extension enabled). My messages still have some of these words, but it’s helped me self-edit from 10 or 12 per message down to 1 or 2.

  30. employment lawyah*

    It helps to understand WHY someone would disagree and then be proactive in disclosing that. It will make you sound smarter and stifle some disagreeable folks.

    For example, say you’re making a complex representation which relies on data, or assumptions. If you state up front “based on ______ data, I think” or “based on _____ assumptions, we should” then you may find it allows you to qualify.

    That isn’t passive, at all. It is *controlling*, insofar as you’re pulling the conversation to your reality-base, but in a good way!

    You can also refer to industry or company standards and include “absent exceptions” or “absent objections” language.

    So for a grant you might say “the usual next steps for NIH grants are A, B, and C; I’ll move forward absent objections.” Or “this paper should be formatted to company policy and I will do that unless someone objects.” That also clearly supports your position AND demonstrates your expertise AND it makes the other side realize that if they DO want an exceptions, it’s not your fault, it’s just an exception.

  31. Kara S*

    I would advise you not say “I think” in situations where you are directly requesting or stating something (for example, “I think you should send me this information so I can get started” should really be “Please send me this information so I can get started”). This is because saying “I think” changes the meaning of what you’re saying. It makes the sentence look more like a suggestion than a direct fact or request.

    Beyond that, I am a vote for continuing to write in a way that feels natural to you so long as it doesn’t change the meaning of what you’re saying. There is a lot of advice out there for how women should write to be taken more seriously but I’ve always felt that asking women to overly change their behaviour is a way of allowing those expectations to continue. There’s advice for how women can be direct (but not too direct!), kind (but not too nice!), which words to avoid to make us look less “soft”…. at first I found this helpful but at a certain point, it turns into asking women to change rather than asking everyone to reconsider how they interpret actions from women. As long as you are professional and your style of writing matches your place of work, do what works for you.

  32. Jennifer McCormack*

    I use the phrase “I believe” to communicate my confidence in my assessment of something and the correct solution:
    “I believe that customers will be better served by X” . To me “I think” seems less confident and invites people to second guess my input so I try to only use that phrase when I am open to and seeking feedback.

  33. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I always use them in the event that it’s somewhat optional or up for debate, I’m only familiar with the situation or brainstorming collaborating wise.

    Otherwise I’ll always say “this is how you proceed” and give directives.

    If a boss asks me the next step, I say “You sign the document.” instead of “I believe the next step is you sign the document.” But if there’s options I’m not certain about, I may say “I believe we can negotiate this.” or my go to is the phrase “Historically we have done it this way.” therefore if they are “in charge” and not the one who made the rule, they know there’s nothing hard and fast about it [re: regulated or if we don’t do it that way, we will explode the entire place, etc.]

    You want to be flexible in your speech and not get lulled into patterns! You want to be in charge of what you’re talking about when it’s necessary and be “team oriented” when that’s the key. Which is part of knowing your office culture as well! Be aware, be aware, be aware! [You seem aware, so you’re doing well with that, it seems.]

    My former boss used to say “In my opinion” a lot when he was asking me for advice. Then I’d tell him either “Yes I agree with that.” or if it’s a matter of opinion, I give him mind, prefacing with “My opinion is actually different than that, I think that…” It’s conversational and again, brainstorming instead of giving directive on things like “This customer wants X, can we do it?” “Yes we can.” not “I believe I can do that.” No it’s a hard and fast “yes” or “no” scenario, no debates allowed. [Sometimes there’s a “What do you think we should do.” and it’s a “If I were the customer, I’d want this and I think that’s reasonable.” sort of spitballing.

    I will also straight up say “That’s not acceptable.” if it’s you know, not acceptable. Not “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

  34. WantonSeedStitch*

    For me, it depends heavily on the audience/recipient and the context. If I am giving feedback to a report, I will not be “mean,” but I will also make sure I don’t frame the feedback as a suggestion, preference, favor, or request. “From now on, please be sure to contact Jane when Wakeen requests something like that before responding to him.” Not, “I’d appreciate it if you could contact Jane,” or “do you think you could contact Jane?”

    But if I’m asking a peer for something, or correcting them, I’m more likely to soften things. “Jane, would it be possible to add me to the meetings on Project X? I think it would be really helpful to stay in the loop so I can tailor my work as needed.” “Wakeen, I think we’d agreed at our last meeting that Jane would handle things with that client going forward because they have an existing relationship.”

    With my boss, it varies, but I try to go for a tone of “confident I know what I’m doing but open to feedback.” “Jorah, Jane asked me for X by noon tomorrow. I’m planning to let her know that that turnaround is faster than our team can handle, but that we can either get her Y by noon, or X by end of day. Would you agree that that’s reasonable?”

    1. allathian*

      “Please be sure to…” is kind as well as direct, but as a manager, it would be entirely appropriate for you to say “I need you to…”. It wouldn’t come across as brusque or mean to me, but then, I’m a rather direct communicator and can take it as well as dish it out. Alison often suggests a “can you do that?” as a sort of softening statement following an “I need you to” statement. Which is fair, as a reasonable report would say “can do” or words to that effect, or else bring up a pertinent reason why they can’t do it without further consultation with you, a scheduling conflict, for example.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        I’ve used “I need you to…” as well. Usually if it’s something that’s particularly irritated upper management or the person’s team. I don’t think I’d add “can you do that?” unless I actually wasn’t sure about the person’s ability to follow the direction (for example, if I needed them to do something that required specific knowledge or skills). Otherwise, when it’s something simple (like cc’ing a person on certain e-mails), it seems unnecessarily condescending to me.

  35. Lizy*

    I agree with AAM, except where she says “try it for a few weeks and see if it becomes more natural”. I’ve tried it for years and while I’m pretty sure I don’t need qualifiers 98% of the time, it still feels weird to leave them out. I definitely do think it’s a female thing, and a youngerish female thing at that (I’m 32). It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten older, but a big part of that is me telling myself I’m a real adult now and it’s ok to act like I know what I’m talking about because I’ve now “been around the block a time or two” like other adult people told me back when I was 15 and had no clue what I was talking about. And tbh I tell myself that with some measure of frequency (probably more than once a week).

    So yeah – I feel ya, OP. I’m 32 and have 4 kids and still second guess myself. It’s a process.

  36. To Qualify or Not to Qualify...*

    I’m re-evaluating this as I just stepped from a corporate role into a non-profit one. The general rule in my corporate role was “directness over all”. It wasn’t my style, and it never felt natural. However, I picked up a few good email tricks that help boost my confidence. I’m also at a point where I’m not junior in my career anymore, but it’s still so hard to stay away from statements like “I think” or “I believe” — but I can give an opinion (most of the time) without a qualifier. I find that a gentle touch goes a long way, and I’m happy for that. It’s hard to edit yourself, but I find that when I proof my email and get rid of qualifiers, I feel fine, and I also feel fine adding in an extra exclamation point or adding in something a bit more “fluffy”, as long as my point is still clear.

    Oh is it ever a process! I feel like the very direct people of the world don’t understand how comforting/assuring qualifying language is, and vice versa — people who lean toward using qualifiers tend not to understand why some colleagues that are nice enough in person are really brusque in written communication. As long as you are writing what feels true to you, hopefully (aha! see there) you’ll get the point across.

  37. willow for now*

    Put your mask on, so you are a little shorter of breath than usual. Read your email out loud, full voice (don’t whisper to yourself). If you are running out of breath, your sentences are too long and/or you have too many fillers/softeners.

    Not kidding. I just edited my first sentence because it was too long!

  38. Sparkles McFadden*

    I think it depends on the context and who is receiving the email. It also depends on industry/corporate culture. I would not do well in a place where softening is commonplace as I tend to be blunt.

    I generally don’t soften anything at all. If I am replying to a direct question posed via email, I might add some qualifiers. If someone’s email asks, “What do you think?” I’m not about to say “That will never work in a million years.” I’d say “You might have a problem with meeting the deadline for the llama grooming automation rollout. We should look at that more closely.”

    I don’t judge anyone who does add qualifiers, though. I assume it’s nothing more than personal style. I agree with the advice to take those qualifiers out and see how you feel about it after awhile.

  39. Iz*

    I was taught that this type of qualifier is unnecessary in writing because the fact that it is what you think or believe is implied by the fact that you’re writing it.

    1. I edit everything*

      My high school English teacher taught us this as well. If you’re saying it, obviously you think it. Mr. Emmelheinz’s lessons are hard to shake.

  40. Anony-Mouse*

    Even when I’m not sure of myself, I try to work with this by taking out the qualifiers and then adding another sentence: “For next steps, I propose… Does that sound good to you?”
    That adds room for the other parties to contradict me if I got it wrong, without me having to go so far as to say “I think”.

  41. Jessica Fletcher*

    [Insert that staring straight ahead emoji] I read the letter Allison linked to and find myself on the side of using precise language (at work, when it matters)! The toner thing would drive me up a wall. I shouldn’t have to ask a follow up to know what simple info you’re trying to share! (And really, if it’s just the toner in the machine and you’re not an executive? Take two seconds to change it if there’s some in the closet, and tell the admin after.)

  42. Rose*

    I’m a woman working in a STEM field. When I do this, I’m told I’m not authoritative and don’t project confidence. When I don’t do this, I’m told I’m pushy and abrasive. Some good ways to handle the issue are: banging your head against your keyboard all day, quitting your day job to live off the grid, or just going back in time and being born a tall white man like you should have in the first place. Hope this helps!

    1. Ruthie*

      @Rose, you literally made me laugh out loud. As a fellow woman in STEM, I can also confirm. The only thing that helps me is flipping the bird to my email inbox. Don’t do this during Zoom meetings, though. :-)

  43. Greenfordanger*

    I work in a regulated profession and clients pay for my advice. I use a different formulation when I set out my views. I say, “In this case, I would advise this. My thinking is . . .” or “My thought is . . . because of these facts”. My thinking is that it’s okay to tell people that this is what you “think” or “believe” – and perhaps I reach that conclusion because I work in a field where there are few clear cut answers – if you tell them why you have reached that conclusion.

  44. Larz*

    I’m a little late here, but I’ve found myself wondering the same thing as the OP because Microsoft Outlook keeps making these crappy suggestions! Whenever I use “probably,” “seems,” “I think,” or any other softening qualifier, it tells me that ***Words expressing uncertainty lessen your impact*** and I find myself second-guessing whether I need to state something as a fact when really, the strongest I can say is “probably”! Thanks, Microsoft, for your off-base, overgeneralized, INTRUSIVE, and outdated “Talk more like an authoritative man to be taken seriously” garbage advice!

  45. Quinalla*

    Sometimes softening language is appropriate when you really do mean I think or probably, but most of the time for women we overuse it. I try to reread my emails and other written correspondence before sending and remove any softening language that is meaningless filler at best and actually hurting my message and making me look less confident at worst. As a woman engineer, I’m even more careful as I am working with mostly men who do not soften language, who in fact are often very direct and abrupt in their language. If the email feels too cold or direct after I remove the soften language, I will add something to warm it up. Sometimes just a simple “Thanks!” is enough, sometimes a “Have a great weekend!” or “Look forward to starting the project!” or whatever similar that is appropriate to the email content. This kind of language really helps me to not feel too cold or come off as too cold (again, women are in a bind here where we are expected to be warm and friendly where a man can be find being terse and direct typically) without softening the message.

    I’m still working hard on this in verbal communication because it is harder to catch, but the more I work on written the better I get at verbal and folks have told me I seem more confident. I always WAS confident (ok, mostly anyway), but my language was not conveying it.

  46. LondonLady*

    I really empathise! I have found the best way is to draft the email, which I naturally do with lots of qualifying text, and then before I send it go through consciously looking to remove the unnecessary words. I usually end up editing some of the qualifying text out (eg removing two and leaving one) which makes the whole sound crisper and clearer while still being polite.

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