Don't Couch your Language
Part 1: Introduction
March 8, 2021
Everyone knows that when interviewing for a job, the question, “What is your greatest weakness?” must be answered with something that’s actually a strength.
I just care too much.
I’m always running early.
l love work more than social life.
These answers, much like the question that precedes them, are disingenuous.
Like many people, I (Maya) struggle with my weaknesses. But, I struggle even more with my strengths. When I'm asked about my strengths, I typically answer with weaknesses. It's not a humility thing. It's something else.
In Canada, professional and academic spaces alike cater to cis, white, straight, able-bodied men. Those of us who do not fit this description often feel pressured to become invisible. Maybe our bosses and colleagues do not make us feel seen. Maybe they make us feel too visible and exposed. Maybe the metrics of success that they use to judge our strengths don't work for us.
My strategy for a long time was to slip by un-noticed. So, I couched my language to soften and obscure my accomplishments.
What is couched language?
To couch words means to squish them into a sentence to sound indirect. It’s like hiding the main point in the cracks between cushions, like loose change and crumbs.
Your ideas aren’t crumbs!
Neither are mine. Hiding our accomplishments in between the cushions so that others have to rummage around for them isn't an act humility. It isn't beneficial. And, it doesn't feel good.
When I write like this, it reflects my own fear of standing out in systems that weren't built for me and to people benefit from my invisibility. And, it’s also a fear of being perceived as bossy, braggy, and bitchy - misogynistic words uniquely used to transform womxn's strengths into weaknesses.
What kind of example am I setting for my business partner, clients, colleagues, and community when I represent myself like this?
This issue isn't my fault. If you struggle with confidence in your writing, it isn't your fault either. No one person is to blame. This is a systemic problem. It's complicated and icky because of sexism, colonialism, racism, classism, ableism, and all the many isms that some people enforce to make other people feel less than.
Systems are made up of people. And, I am a person. A whole person. Even though this is one small thing that won't take down a whole system (though I am optimistic it might), I’m on a mission to un-couch my language. That way, I can use confident and humble language to write from a place of enough instead of less than. The beauty of enough is that it makes space for more people to also be and have enough. As a result, we stop competing with each other for less so that those on the top can take more.
For example, when I write grant applications, I now advocate for my worth and value as a PhD student researcher. My hope is that my peers also benefit from an expectation that we are all paid, paid livable wages, and valued/credited for our important contributions to knowledge production. This way two things happen. First, the next student who advocates for their worth has an easier time making their case. Ideally, there is no time after that. The case as been made. Second, we get used to seeing all of the names of people whose labour makes a project successful. When we see how much and how many go into a thing, we (as a society) can stop giving credit solely to whoever put their name first or claimed the highest job title.
I'd like to cheer you on and encourage you - whoever you are - to join me in un-couching your language too. In the next few blog posts, I will explore tangible examples from my own writing about what couched language looks like in the contexts of:
resumes and cover letters
grants and award applications
Then, I will share some ideas, strategies, and reflections to elevate our strengths in genuine and respectful ways. As this is a public learning journey, I anticipate making mistakes and look forward to us (un)learning together. If you have suggestions of topics to include, or feedback I'd love to hear from you!
Let's get un-couching!