How do you ask for a cookie? The power of "Weak Language"

“Stop using weak language.” If you’re a woman, you’ve probably gotten this advice from a mentor, a coach or a teacher. If you want to be heard, use more forceful language. If you want a raise or a promotion, demand it. As the saying goes, nice girls don’t get the corner office.

This advice may be well-intentioned, but it’s misguided. Disclaimers (I might be wrong, but …), hedges (maybe, sort of), and tag questions (don’t you think?) can be a strategic advantage. So-called weak language is an unappreciated source of strength."

Excerpted from the July 31, 2023, New York Times article by Adam Grant: Women know exactly what they’re doing when they use ‘weak language.’

I love this article! What he calls ‘weak language’ is definitely how I’ve communicated during my organizational career – with men – well, with most men. 

“If you want a raise or a promotion, demand it.”

This is the wisdom of so many books out there on how to be a successful female leader. I remember a workshop I attended where our male instructor spent an hour lecturing us to be more assertive, to ask for what we want, and most of all to stop saying “I’m sorry.” 

I’m sorry but, …

that has not been my style and I wonder if you can relate! See what you think of this story:

I wanted a cookie – a second cookie!

It was April 2016, and I was attending the Hudson Institute of Coaching’s yearly conference in Santa Barbara, California. Always a great event with noted speakers and workshops, the conference never failed to provide a boost to my knowledge and to my spirits. I traveled from Maine, from a grey- brown landscape of mud and leafless trees to a vibrant full-color spectrum. It was the bougainvillea that always got me. Those colors! Magenta, yellow, orange. I was there in the midst of so much beauty. I was there with my cohort, those who graduated with me back in December, 2007. Connection, learning, and soaking in the sun of the California Riviera. What could be better?

The second evening, some of my buddies and I had gathered around a firepit on the hotel patio. A zillion stars were out.  We had been listening and participating all day; had a great dinner (so many places to choose from in Santa Barbara) and now we were relaxing. Still feeling a bit of jet lag, I decided it was time to call it a day. I was also feeling the need for something sweet. (This happens to me a lot.) Driven by the need to satisfy that feeling, I went into the lobby with my friend, Colleen, with the express purpose of getting a cookie (you know, the ones they hand you when they welcome you on day one) from the guy behind the front desk.

I went up to the guy, with Colleen at my side, and asked – in my way - for a cookie (In full transparency, it should be noted that I had received my “welcome cookie” when I checked in the day before.)

I approached with what Dr. Grant describes as: “tentative language.”

From the article:

“In 29 studies, women in a variety of situations had a tendency to use more “tentative language’ than men. But that language doesn’t reflect a lack of assertiveness or conviction. Rather, it’s a way to convey interpersonal sensitivity – interest in other people’s perspectives – and that’s why it’s powerful.”

I was well-schooled in this type of language - from working mostly with men and from working as a conflict management facilitator. Mediation is all about an interest in other people’s perspectives. We mediators learn well how to “reflect back,” how to help people trust us enough so we can guide them to a better place. And in a large hierarchical mostly male organization I had learned to choose my words if I wanted to get anywhere. I had honed my interpersonal sensitivity!

Back to the cookie…(By the way – it was chocolate chip.)

I zeroed in on my target…and began…

“I know you have a limited supply of cookies and that you reserve them for your arriving guests, but I hope you can spare an extra one for me tonight.”

Note the use of the word “hope”. Dr. Grant comments in the article on a study where experienced managers watched videos of people negotiating for higher pay and weighed in on whether the request should be granted. 

“…if the request sounded tentative then the participants were more willing to support a salary increase for women. “By using a disclaimer (“I don’t know…”)_and a hedge (“I hope…”,) the women reinforced the supervisor’s authority and avoided the impression of arrogance.”

So interesting, don’t you think? (Can you identify this type of disclaimer? It’s a “tag question.”)

This was my ingratiating, friendly approach that usually worked great… but this guy must have had a bad day – he wasn’t moved. Well, he was - but it took more than just one “I hope.”

I continued:

“I know you only have a certain amount and they are for arriving guests. And I know it’s late and I got mine yesterday, but I’m hoping that maybe you could make an exception?”

He grumbled, visibly put out. Reading the signs, (it should be noted that this approach doesn’t always work!) I was ready to take my leave with a “thank you, anyway.” But then, maybe he remembered some lesson learned from hotel school, and he capitulated. He strode begrudgingly over to his cookie-warming drawer and took one out for me. I don’t remember a smile. I said a very nice thank you. I probably said something like “This is great. You are the best.”

He wasn’t happy. I ate my cookie but felt that it had been obtained under duress. 

Colleen watched the transaction in some disbelief,

“Susanna, you said everything you could possibly say to get him not to give you a cookie. You gave him all the reasons why he shouldn’t…!

  • You only have a certain amount.
  • It’s late.
  • I got mine already.
  • They are only for arriving guests.”

I know! She was right. I was giving him a way out. I was respecting that he had limits and, ever the mediator, I wanted him to know that I understood his side of things. I was using what Grant calls “powerless language.” I didn’t do, as my colleague suggested I should have done. She asked me,

“Susanna, why didn’t you just walk up to that counter and ask for a cookie?”

Here’s another quote from the article:

“When the speech was given by a man, audiences found the assertive and tentative versions equally persuasive. When the same speech was delivered by a woman, though, style made a big difference. So did the gender of the audience member. Female observers found the woman more persuasive when she spoke assertively but men were more convinced when she spoke tentatively. They saw her as more likable and trustworthy.”

Female observers wanted assertion. That makes sense to me – but as I’ve said, I’ve used this approach with men mostly, not women.

Now, some of you are thinking…

Hey, Susanna, I thought you were a Heroine. You know, step up, lean in, speak up. What, are you afraid to ask for what you want?

I wasn’t afraid. This approach, this way of speaking, has worked for me – in all kinds of conflict situations; in all kinds of conversations where I wanted to make sure everyone was heard, including me. Some of you may think it’s manipulative. But often I had an agenda that I had been tasked with, leading a group to resolution.

Tentative language makes space in the conversation for people to weigh in with their perspectives. Tentative language suggests you are there to listen and to try to understand where others are coming from. Tentative language helps people trust the facilitator, the mediator, and the person who wants results. Don’t dismiss the potential power of the tentative. It could serve you as well, as it has served me. 

And be selective. Not everyone needs the tentative language approach…take my husband for example!  

" Susanna! Why don't you just come out and tell me what you want?" 

I tell him, most directly, and most often, he complies. He's a good guy.