January 26, 2016 — Picture this. Your team is sitting around the conference room discussing the feasibility of switching to a new website platform. Knowing the significant risks involved, your co-worker John speaks up against the proposal and gets this feedback: “Quit being such a Negative Nancy, John. We know there are threats, but when don’t those exist in our business?”
We are inundated with phrases that associate negative behaviors with women. These common colloquialisms, used to dismiss both women and men who act a certain way, sneak into our everyday vernacular inside and outside the workplace: Chatty Kathy, Negative Nancy, Nervous Nellie, Debbie Downer, Lazy Susan, and the most recent, Bye Felicia.
What’s even more disturbing is how accepted and widely used these are in the work setting, implying that women are talkative and gossipy (Chatty Kathy), pessimistic naysayers (Negative Nancy and Debbie Downer), afraid to take risks (Nervous Nellie), lack ambition (Lazy Susan), and are simply dismissible (Bye Felicia). Not.
As I noticed this trend, I thought there must be negative phrases like these for men. But as I dove deeper, I found the complete opposite: Jack of All Trades, Curious George, Johnny on the Spot, Even Steven. The most negative one I could find was Average Joe. And let’s be honest, from the movie Dodgeball and overall perception that average (for men) is acceptable, even good (read: dad bod), Average Joe isn’t even an insult.
Besides being lame descriptors and uncreative insults, what’s the real problem with these expressions? Language is powerful. It has the ability to perpetuate discrimination, bias, and assumptions. When we choose (and revive) phrases like these, we are maintaining an environment that minimizes women and propagating caricatures that diminish our female colleagues. Simply put, we are associating negative behavior with female characters, and we are saying that when you act like Kathy, Nancy, Nellie, Debbie, Susan or Felicia, “You are no good. You should instead be like Jack, George, Johnny, or Steven.” These phrases are injected into business meetings, collaboration sessions, office gossip, and performance conversations. Whatever the context, when we use them we’re diminishing the person in question by comparing her or him with a woman.
So, what can we do? I see two options. One, stop using these expressions and encourage others to do the same. Or two, make them your own. I think Courageous Kathy, Noble Nancy, Nerves-of-Steel Nelly, Debbie Decider, Fierce Susan, and Hello Adele sound way more interesting, don’t you?