"This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters"
July 5, 2015 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Just don't do it:
What this advice boils down to is ‘talk like a man’. The writer doesn’t even try to argue that there’s some inherent reason to prefer ‘less body language’ (whatever that means) to more. It’s preferable simply because it’s what men are said to do. Men are more successful in the workplace, so if women want to emulate their success, the trick is to mimic their behaviour.

More:

Is hating the Kardashians' voices misogynistic? Men have vocal fry and uptalk, too—but people don't penalize them in nearly the same way.

Diction and Elocution for the Young Lady of the Technical Persuasion

(Previously, previously-er)
posted by NoraReed (72 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interestingly, as it says in the first article, the language of young women tends to permeate the entire culture in a couple of generations, even while the women themselves are devalued. It reminds me how culture spreads from "obscurity" in communities of culture, to something "edgy" when done by while people, to a mainstream part of white culture without any history over the course of 3-4 generations (see: rock & roll).

This contradicts some of the linguistic theories I've heard where we imitate the people we look up to - so I'm baffled by the prevalence of this. They might be more informed by the "appropriation" end of colonialism, perhaps? Where things done by "the other" are valued for exoticism, but "the other" is devalued as inferior or primitive?
posted by Deoridhe at 6:16 PM on July 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


So, I saw this from one of my awesome feminist friends on Facebook at the same time I was editing down an interview I did with the MeFite Bookhouse. We'd scheduled an hour and instead talked for over three; the editor wanted about 5,000 words to edit down to 2,500 and the raw transcript was about 25,000. Because of this, I was really conscious of all the verbal filler tics that we (two mid-30s dudes) had because I had to cut as much as humanly possible. I cut over 300 "like," I cut over 200 "just," along with over 300 each "you know," and "I mean," (along with a ton of other random filler bits), all phrases that soften declarations and imply opinion. Cutting them saved words but shifted the tone somewhat from conversational to assertions.

I was struck by this, like I was with the kerfuffle over vocal fry, because when I measure the amount of filler words in interviews I've had with women versus men, the asserted difference in numbers just isn't there. Likewise, when I thought about vocal fry, I remembered that all the guys in my elementary and middle school classes all practiced vocal fry because we thought it made us seem cooler and older.

I'm totally willing to credit linguistic innovation to young women, but a lot of the purported speech patterns come down to the fact that when women use the same speech patterns, they're coded qualitatively differently, where a guy dropping "just" 300 times isn't seen as reflecting on his authority, but a woman's is.

(I will admit that I've been trying to consciously get over my bias against higher voices while I simultaneously think that an expansion in the number of women on the radio has led to both higher numbers of higher voices than previous, as well as a greater diversity [including more voices at the higher end] than had previously existed. In working to get over it, I've been helped by knowing more than one actual scientist who talks like a Valley Girl even when describing, like, genetic plesiomorphy or literally littoral microclimate effects on invertebrate diversity.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:16 PM on July 5, 2015 [65 favorites]


It is now commonly used by both sexes, but (like many linguistic innovations that go on to become mainstream) it originated among young women, and because of that it continues to be criticized for making you sound like a clueless airhead.

But it does make the speaker sound like a clueless airhead, regardless of who it is. An interesting experience is listening to Toastmaster's speeches: all the filler words ("just", in the first article's example) dilute the impact of what someone is trying to say. The "y'knows, uhs, ums, likes", etc. tics are shared by everyone (which is probably why we were all at Toastmaster's!).
posted by sfkiddo at 6:27 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just*reminded myself of a guy I worked with who used "at the end of the day" as a filler phrase. It became a word salad of "Well, at the end of the day, when we do this preso at the end of the day, at the end of the day we want X to happen."

*Ha, using "just" as "just right now.
posted by sfkiddo at 6:31 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


But it does make the speaker sound like a clueless airhead

Yeah, well, y'know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:34 PM on July 5, 2015 [18 favorites]


"But it does make the speaker sound like a clueless airhead, regardless of who it is. An interesting experience is listening to Toastmaster's speeches: all the filler words ("just", in the first article's example) dilute the impact of what someone is trying to say. The "y'knows, uhs, ums, likes", etc. tics are shared by everyone (which is probably why we were all at Toastmaster's!)."

Well, no, it doesn't. Bookhouse didn't sound like a clueless airhead — he sounded like someone trying to both think through what he was saying about nuanced topics (mostly race in crime fiction) and be informal. I edited them out both for length and to improve the force of the statements, but at no point did he sound like an airhead.
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 PM on July 5, 2015 [26 favorites]


Even more to the point, actively working against my stereotype of, essentially, Valley Girls has let me get further away from a sexist ad hominem fallacy concerning the quality of the content of speech versus the tone. Insisting that someone who sounds like an airhead must be an airhead is circular; someone may be an airhead based on the content of their statements, but prejudging them by tone would have led to me missing a lot of great stuff from smart people.

(My canonical example is Sarah Vowel, whose voice can annoy the shit out of me even as what she says is often really interesting.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:39 PM on July 5, 2015 [18 favorites]


I liked how the author (who, as usual, deserved to have been named in the FPP) repeatedly turned assertions about women's speech on their head:

Even in the 1990s the flaw in this reasoning was obvious. Men’s greater success in the workplace is largely a product of their privileged status as men: just imitating their behaviour won’t give women their status. Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, recycling the same old advice.

I work in a very male field, and it is interesting watching how the small number of women in it position themselves very deliberately (including how they talk, dress, and otherwise present themselves) in ways that none of the men need to.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:52 PM on July 5, 2015 [19 favorites]


[One comment deleted. If we're going to have this thread, we need to not be calling names or making it personal, and I'm going to ask people to refrain from rattling out routine pet peeves about these linguistic behaviors -- enjoyable though pet peeves are, this is not the thread for them. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:05 PM on July 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


It reminds me how culture spreads from "obscurity" in communities of culture, to something "edgy" when done by while people, to a mainstream part of white culture without any history over the course of 3-4 generations (see: rock & roll). This contradicts some of the linguistic theories I've heard where we imitate the people we look up to - so I'm baffled by the prevalence of this.

Look into "change from below" and "covert prestige". This "change from above" is one way that linguistic change can happen, but it's not the only way (and certainly, no linguist would say that change from the above is the sole means of linguistic change).
posted by damayanti at 7:11 PM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


This really is the perfect illustration of a can't-win situation:

Do the extra conversational work to be likeable -> deferential, asking permission, "child" words
Emulate men's behavior -> bitch, unfriendly, what's her problem
posted by naju at 7:12 PM on July 5, 2015 [60 favorites]


I do think that "just" has become to millennials what "you know" was to Gen-X and earlier -- a placeholder to keep the conversation going until the person speaking thinks of the correct word/phrase to use. "You know" was frequently used by men as well as women, and men who used it were criticized for using it as well as women. I've also heard men as well as women get criticized for ending sentences with "so", since that prolongs a statement or a sentence beyond what the speaker had intended to say.

I'm not saying that women don't come under undue criticism for how they speak as well as what they say, but I do think there's a lot of correlation = causation going on with these studies and observations. The most -- for want of a better word -- problematic vocal tics seem to come out of Southern California, which IMO is worth investigating as much as the gendered element of the criticism.
posted by pxe2000 at 7:13 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've not been around all that many upper-level managers, certainly not on the same plane they were on except once, a job which lasted maybe 18 months. The Peter Principle -- I was promoted to my level of incompetence, stayed until someone got smart and fired my ass.

But of all of them I've been around, Jeanine was the biggest knife-fighter of all. I hated her guts and admired the living shit out of her. She said anything she wanted, promised anyone anything they wanted and delivered only what she wanted to, when she wanted to, she could have said just 47 times in a sentence but it wouldn't have mattered a damn; everyone was checking for wounds, and some word or other wouldn't have mattered a bit.

My boss was a dancer, not a slasher, anyone slash at him they'd hit empty air and then there's Dennis, standing over there now, smiling. Maybe waving. Dennis was super-cool.

Meetings totally sucked for me, due to my complete incompetence in that role; regardless that, it was amusing, watching the various players. Jeanine wasn't the only knife-fighter, just the best. Dennis wasn't the only dancer, just that *he* was the best, too.

It was Dennis who explained it to me, when I asked him about all the muggings going on all over the goddamn place -- he told me that the higher up the org chart you are, the easier you are to shoot at.

In my (admittedly short) time in the rarefied air those people breathe, it seemed (and seems) to me that it's not so much what words are used, it's more about knowing where the various pressure points are, and being willing to put someone on the ground by grabbing their thumb and tweaking it just so, while smiling, etc. Clear, strong language is very important. But clear, strong eyes are more important.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:13 PM on July 5, 2015 [19 favorites]


But it does make the speaker sound like a clueless airhead, regardless of who it is.

I think you're missing the point: both men and women do all of the things that generally get tossed around as "bad things to do that make you sound incompetent"* (vocal fry, uptalk, "like", etc.), but women are the (1) ones that primarily get called out on it, and (2) get all sorts of nice victim blame-y type stuff thrown onto them because of it ("You would have a better paying job if you just talked right").

*Which, the article points out, is often really not the case anyway
posted by damayanti at 7:14 PM on July 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


klangklangklaxon, I don't know who Bookhouse even is, let alone have heard him talk.
posted by sfkiddo at 7:15 PM on July 5, 2015


The most -- for want of a better word -- problematic vocal tics seem to come out of Southern California, which IMO is worth investigating as much as the gendered element of the criticism.

Let me introduce you to Penny Eckert, who is, along with many of her students, doing work on all of that (She was one of the linguists interviewed for that "Punk Rock" accent post).

Amalia Arvaniti is another person to look into, who's looked into uptalk and gender in SoCal.
posted by damayanti at 7:18 PM on July 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I don't know who Bookhouse even is, let alone have heard him talk

> the MeFite Bookhouse (now with link)

I think klang's point is that we have defined "airhead" as someone who [talks this particular way] that is uptalky/using a lot of filler words/(stereo)typically female.

Men who talk that way aren't necessarily categorized as airheads; women nearly always are. The way we define "airhead" wasn't handed down on a stone tablet - it was defined by people in a cultural and historical context, and defining someone using uptalk, vocal fry, and "like" and "just" a lot as an airhead because of those usages is a choice, not a requirement.
posted by rtha at 7:33 PM on July 5, 2015 [26 favorites]


Fascinating piece. Thank you, NoraReed.

And I say this as a woman who is constantly trying to excise "just" from my online communications or at least to be very conscious of when it's serving a legit purpose versus "softening" a comment that might better be made without the cushioning.

While we're on the subject, what about this thing where people (from my anecdotal observation, mostly men) start every answer to a question with the word "so"? It's ubiquitous in NPR interviews. Klangklangston even did it upthread! It's a funny little segue word and I think it serves some of the same purpose, cushioning the response instead of launching into it outright. It's become so common that I notice now, and appreciate, when an interviewee answers a question straight out with no transition word. (No criticism of Klang intended!)
posted by torticat at 7:34 PM on July 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


aw dang I missed this when I made the post: Is It Vocal Fry or Are You Just a Rusty Swing?
posted by NoraReed at 7:40 PM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Men who talk that way aren't necessarily categorized as airheads; women nearly always are. The way we define "airhead" wasn't handed down on a stone tablet - it was defined by people in a cultural and historical context, and defining someone using uptalk, vocal fry, and "like" and "just" a lot as an airhead because of those usages is a choice, not a requirement.

Ok, guess I am not using this word correctly, then. I usually use it as a metaphor for "people who sound like they have heads full of air."
posted by sfkiddo at 7:49 PM on July 5, 2015


airhead is a very gender coded insult, even if specific people don't always (mean to) use it that way.
posted by nadawi at 7:57 PM on July 5, 2015 [56 favorites]


Definitely an interesting and thought-provoking article on a number of levels.

My current role involves working with a lot of sizable egos, people who are encouraged to be self-aggrandizing in order to make impacts in their fields. I am in a support role, helping to pursue and manage intellectual property generated by these folks, but with an eye to good investments of a not-unlimited budget. I have the authority to say "no" to bad investments, but the responsibility to keep these people happy.

So, I have to use a lot of gentle guiding and prodding in my communications. It's a major challenge to convince someone used to getting their way that they will not get it this time, but hey here's a more effective way to get what you want, and I'm going to help you get there! We're in this together! I have to use "just" (and other similar types of softening words) a lot in specific contexts, but in others I have to be firm and excise these types of words from my vocabulary, like torticat describes.

I'm on a team of fantastic communicators. As a man, I can generally walk this fine line without people attempting to walk over me, but I have noted that some of the women on my team have gotten really shitty treatment from their male customers. It sucks, and it should stop, and articles decrying vocal fry, uptalk, and now "just" as parts of women's speech are poisonous to our common discourse.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:58 PM on July 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


I usually use it as a metaphor for "people who sound like they have heads full of air."

I guess I don't follow you. If their heads were full of air, they probably would have to be dead, and wouldn't be speaking to anyone.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:59 PM on July 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'd be more deeply suspicious of people who didn't have vocal tics. If all your answers are snappy, there's probably not a lot of thought in any of them.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:01 PM on July 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


Thanks for posting this! I saw the article being critiqued here and it drove me nuts.

"It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”"

When did "permisssion words" become a problem? Last I checked, we taught kids to say things like "please" (literally a request for persmission: "If it pleases you") when asking for something, and "excuse me" (literally an apology for interrupting, and a request for forgiveness) when requesting someone's attention. It's a way of being polite. A lot of these "permission" words seem to me more contemporary versions of that same thing. As klangklangston points out - these verbal tics "soften declarations", which seems entirely okay to me. If women happen to do that more than men, that's a point for women as far as I'm concerned....
posted by ManInSuit at 8:13 PM on July 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


klangklangklaxon, I don't know who Bookhouse even is, let alone have heard him talk."

Not to play his agent, but he's a hardboiled fiction writer, as well as a former staff writer for the Mentalist and a current writer on Gotham, with a short story collection coming out on July 7.

The other thing this reminds me of is being pissed to get grouped with Mandy Cummings [an unfortunate name] on a science project in high school. Mandy was, like, totally the pastel pink ditz cheerleader O-MA-GAWD … until we had a meeting with just our group, at which point she was non nonsense and had already planned out the entire semester. I remember being really frustrated because it just made her airhead act all the more artificial, but I didn't underestimate her again (not least because group work with someone organized and smart is such found money). She's someone I think back to a lot when thinking about gendered communication expectations. When I was younger, I was a lot more willing to resent her for being "fake," and now I'm much more aware of both my biases and the social pressures that could make her performance of femininity a pretty rational decision.

"I'd be more deeply suspicious of people who didn't have vocal tics. If all your answers are snappy, there's probably not a lot of thought in any of them."

Again, transcribing makes you painfully aware of your own tics, and I'm a bundle of them. I stammer, I have a bad habit of not completing thoughts — I get to where the rest of the sentence should be implied, then just — and I drop a shitton of "y'know" and "i'mean" all over everything. I'm quick on a lot of stuff, but quickly stammering isn't Algonquin Roundtable, yknow?
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 PM on July 5, 2015 [16 favorites]


Historically, listening to the Nixon tapes gives insight into conversations he had that is quite apparent he did not want to have. It is quite off track but it seems relevent concerning:

"I'd be more deeply suspicious of people who didn't have vocal tics. If all your answers are snappy, there's probably not a lot of thought in any of them."

I agree with this in the context of Ronald Reagans speaking and what private stuff has been released.

Ford cleared his throat a lot.
posted by clavdivs at 8:43 PM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Worth extended browsing: the Language Log archives of posts tagged Language and gender
posted by fredludd at 8:45 PM on July 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


When did "permisssion words" become a problem? Last I checked, we taught kids to say things like "please" (literally a request for persmission: "If it pleases you") when asking for something, and "excuse me" (literally an apology for interrupting, and a request for forgiveness) when requesting someone's attention. It's a way of being polite. A lot of these "permission" words seem to me more contemporary versions of that same thing. As klangklangston points out - these verbal tics "soften declarations", which seems entirely okay to me. If women happen to do that more than men, that's a point for women as far as I'm concerned....

A lot of this comes back to "masculine" things being tied to positivity and "feminine" things being tied to negativity. Many things that are coded as masculine are related to domination, whereas feminine-coded ones are tied to cooperation; stereotypically masculine behavior ends up with men playing the better-than-you game (or "dick-measuring contest", as I've heard it called) whereas feminine-coded behavior is more cooperative and involves putting other social players on common ground in order to make them comfortable, often by putting oneself down. (None of these are universal, of course, but they're all part of standard societal socialization for men and women.)

The problem is that in a workplace, you need people doing the "feminine" thing in order to get things to run smoothly, but because of the devaluation of feminine-coded things in patriarchy, those things aren't valued. Jostling for position in a masculine way is pretty inefficient, but tends to yield better rewards for the people who do it, though women tend to get judged more harshly for not resigning themselves to more "feminine" behaviors (which are undervalued and often consume a lot of emotional energy as well as extra time).

It's one of the ways where capitalism and patriarchy really go hand in hand to fuck over a lot of people and create a lot of inefficiency because of wasted energy on competition instead of cooperation (as well as a less competent workforce in general where men are promoted above a level they deserve at the expensive of more qualified women).

This happens across other axes as well, though different factors end up in play; the American habit of seeing AAVE as "unprofessional" while simultaneously co-opting it is particularly noticeable to me, but I'm white, so I'm sure I'm privilege-blinded to a lot of other things. The same inefficiencies of bigotry apply in these instances, of course, as well as very similar methods of hiding prejudice behind a "personal dislike of certain ways of talking", which is used against all sorts of different groups. Women sound like "airheads" or "valley girls" and are punished more harshly for upspeak, Black people are treated worse when they "sound Black" while the aforementioned co-option of AAVE happens, the "gay lisp" is simultaneously imitated by hip "meterosexuals" while gay men who use it are put down, etc. I've seen the same thing happen with classism and ageism, too.
posted by NoraReed at 8:51 PM on July 5, 2015 [48 favorites]


> with a short story collection coming out on July 7.

/adds ANOTHER thing to "list of things available on Tuesday, July 7, and hey what is it about Tuesdays as drop days for books and things anyway
posted by rtha at 9:03 PM on July 5, 2015


Books always drop on Tuesdays! There are occasional rare exceptions, but Tuesday is official New Book Day, when all the books in the back of the bookstore get to go on the shelves. Same with movies. Comics are Wednesdays, and video games usually on Thursdays.
posted by NoraReed at 9:07 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Music release dates are changing to Fridays, like, this very Friday.

(Not totally a derail if I add a filler word, right?)
posted by asperity at 9:35 PM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Is hating the Kardashians' voices misogynistic? Men have vocal fry and uptalk, too—but people don't penalize them in nearly the same way.

I'm not really a fan of the Kardashians and Jenners, but there's some deep, deep sexism to the way people, even self-identified feminists, talk about the women in that family. Andy Warhol engaged in celebrity-for-its-own-sake? Genius. Kim does it? Bimbo. Caitlyn looks good on a magazine cover? Kris must be stewing with envy. A man (or flat-chested woman) shows some skin on a magazine cover? Crickets. Kim appears on a magazine cover in a pose that's completely safe for work but has some fairly prominent cleavage? Well, clearly she's a cheap whore for even acknowledging that she has those things. These women can't dress modestly enough, can't talk acceptably, aren't allowed to feel human emotions (if they're even feeling what we're projecting onto them), and dare ask for attention once in a while, when men just barge in and take it and that's perfectly okay and even seen as admirable in many cases. I wish people would be honest with themselves about what exactly they hate when it comes to this family, and whether that stuff would still hold true with a celebrity family full of men.
posted by mirepoix at 10:01 PM on July 5, 2015 [23 favorites]


A lot of this comes back to "masculine" things being tied to positivity and "feminine" things being tied to negativity.

Talking about the patriarchy tends to have a slightly terrifying effect.
posted by Little Dawn at 10:23 PM on July 5, 2015


I had a succession of bosses who were women. Then I got a new boss. When I went into his office, he'd blast me for saying, "Mike, do you have a minute?" He would yell at me for asking permission to come into his office or to ask a question, but if I didn't do it, he'd he'd put his feet on his desk, stand with one foot on his desk or put his arms out and get really big. I eventually quit, because he was such a bully. When I asked the only other manager at my level in that department what to do, she told me I should wear shirts with more cleavage and flirt more.

When I was much younger, I had a boss who blasted me because, at an event, I "allowed" a man to stay in a non-permitted area for a minute. I'd told the guy 3x not to go in there, but, because him moving at just that second would put him in the view of the TV camera, I gave him till the end of the action in front to move. My manager chewed me out in front of everyone and told me I had some sort of problem because nobody was listening to him. I was about 19 and I looked at him and said, "Has it ever occurred to you that being a 30-something 6'5 white male with a suit and tie and years of radio voice training gives you power I cannot even hope to capture as a 19yo woman?" He looked astonished and wasn't so hard on me after that.

I studied male and female communication patterns in university. But it never prepared me for what the workplace held. I've found my way over the years. Yet I'm acutely aware that young men at the same level conveyed authority just for being white males.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:26 PM on July 5, 2015 [47 favorites]


I can understand the reasoning behind the argument that this is all related to standards of professionalism, but the explicit framing of these "Just" articles (and the overall "linguistics for ladies" article genre) is gender coded. That's consistent with the anecdotal sense that this is more a discriminatory issue for women, as a lot of folks here attest. I'd be willing to bet there's some academic literature on it, but I'm too lazy to search for any. So, you've got a credible cultural norm, plus articles that say pretty explicitly that this norm is what they're discussing.

Not only does an argument that this is based on standards of professionalism beg the question of whether those standards are fair, but it's based on the assumption that because you can see one thing (everyone adopting a more formal communication style to connote professionalism), the topic discussed isn't happening. It's like an outfielder in Tampa concluding there's no ball in the air because he looks up and just sees white, despite the whole crowd yelling that it's right there above him. It's simpler to conclude that it's not sexist if it's never aimed at you and you aren't looking out for it.

Or, in anecdote: Not too long ago, my wife wanted to switch mechanics. They condescended to her and pissed her off. I caught myself about halfway through saying, "Huh. But they've never treated me like—"
posted by klangklangston at 2:38 AM on July 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


I loved this article; great response to the original article chastises women for using "just" without understanding any of the deeper reasons and implications. When I speak in a straightforward, polite manner with no girliness, i,e, like a man, I have been accused of being aggressive. When I add girliness, I'm obviously less effective. It's tiring.
posted by theora55 at 3:59 AM on July 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is why I prefer to email people about work stuff. Gives me time to edit for both my own tics and the biases I suspect the reader is bringing to the table.
posted by harriet vane at 4:04 AM on July 6, 2015


Person vetted by corporate overlords just wants you to know that if you'd just stop using this one word you'd be just as rich and successful as her!
posted by dis_integration at 5:07 AM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am really glad someone wrote this so that now I can resist the temptation to snark when someone posts that annoying "just" piece or vocal fry one or whatever and just add this to the conversation. By the way, where's the opinion piece about passive aggressive social media behavior and how it's going to leave you to die alone and childless and not at all like the fertile and well loved author who did everything right and is completely responsible for his or her success and it wasn't luck or privilege at all?
posted by dis_integration at 5:13 AM on July 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


Anyone who has trouble believing there are gender disparities in how voices and speech patterns are scrutinized should work in radio for, oh, an hour and a half.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:14 AM on July 6, 2015 [32 favorites]


"Has it ever occurred to you that being a 30-something 6'5 white male with a suit and tie and years of radio voice training gives you power I cannot even hope to capture as a 19yo woman?"

Requisite Amy Schumer skit on that topic.

I have had people complaining about my voice since...what, 2001? I sound naturally "rude and mean," apparently, especially on a phone. So I have been consciously girling it up and being high pitched and fake cheerful so as to be properly submissive and sweet and nice and show how much of a peon I am compared to you, almighty customer, etc., etc. Of course, now I get complaints about how fake that sounds too. I am seriously considering getting some kind of voice lessons (maybe I need the equivalent of Bully Broads vocally?), except beats me where you find that sort of thing and all I find are singing lessons online in my area.

But what it really boils down to is "You need to be a man, except you can't be a man, and even if you went full on butch lesbian/trans you still wouldn't manage to please us." Because we can never be over six feet with a deep voice and a suit and tie. And really, the world just wants us to be born with a penis and if we fail that, at least shut the hell up.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:23 AM on July 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


I do prefer less body language - I can't STAND watching those people who just can't hold their damn heads still for two seconds while they're speaking, like they're some kind of damn bobblehead or something. But it's sexist nonsense to call women out on it and not men.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:56 AM on July 6, 2015


And this brings up a lot of negative feelings from my childhood of repeatedly being the ONLY one in a group of children punished for making too much noise while playing. That's right, I was also the only girl in the group.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:57 AM on July 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


I spend a fair bit of time listening to high school debaters. The girls are in such a bind. Either they adopt a "big and mean" persona, which is helpful on the floor but death to their social lives, or they get constantly downmarked and dismissed because high pitched voices apparently reduce the logic of their arguments. And the boys will get a pass on confidently talking absolute rubbish, where the girls will be hauled up for their unforgivable gaps in knowledge. Makes me crazy.
posted by bardophile at 6:05 AM on July 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


My response to the Business Insider article was complete puzzlement, because in my experience in an academic bureaucracy nobody uses verbal fry. We tend to post as if our supply of bytes is limited and running out.

I was wondering if this was a particular difference between administrative and tech cultures...until I realized it was another in a long line of "women your doing it wrong"articles.
posted by happyroach at 6:58 AM on July 6, 2015


But what it really boils down to is "You need to be a man, except you can't be a man, and even if you went full on butch lesbian/trans you still wouldn't manage to please us." Because we can never be over six feet with a deep voice and a suit and tie. And really, the world just wants us to be born with a penis and if we fail that, at least shut the hell up.

I'd say it's not so much that one "needs to be a man" as that the system itself requires an inferior class and will create one if one isn't handy. We could all be reborn tomorrow as thirty-ish weight-lifting Crossfit white dudes from UMC backgrounds and a way would be found to "feminize" and "racialize" some of us so that there would be inferiors to kick around, underpay, jail, etc. That's why women can't win - because women winning would upset the whole apple cart. There have to be people to answer phones who can be treated with contempt, for example, and people to make hamburgers who can get yelled at and forced to work unpaid overtime and fired with impunity, and there has to be a way to mark those people.
posted by Frowner at 7:01 AM on July 6, 2015 [17 favorites]


I have a female supervisor at work who embodies many problematic elements of being a leader but also wanting to be seen as friendly/approachable to the staff she supervises, to the point where she ignores obvious verbal and physical boundaries. (Think Michael Scott.) She uses a lot of vocal tics that irritate me, such as using the word "just" a lot, relying on adverbs (oh look, another verbal tic on which men and women lean!), and upspeaking. (She's in her 50s, which makes this an even worse look because it seems like she's trying to be "down with the kids" or something.) None of her female peers at the organization use these tics, and most of them talk a lot less than she does.

I tried to unpack my irritation with her verbiage, just to make sure I wasn't harboring a bitch eating crackers level of contempt for her. As I thought about it, what occurred to me was that I felt as though she didn't have much confidence in what she was trying to say. When she upspeaks and starts sentences with apologetic language like "just", she doesn't sound like she's owning her statements -- she almost sounds as though she's apologizing for them.

I do wish that more women would own their beliefs and their statements instead of relying on this language of apology, but clearly this is a societal problem for which there are no easy answers.
posted by pxe2000 at 7:02 AM on July 6, 2015


(She's in her 50s, which makes this an even worse look because it seems like she's trying to be "down with the kids" or something.)

I generally use diffidence (not uptalk, generally - I'm slightly too old and too midwestern to have picked it up as a teen) because I am well aware that someone who looks like me and has my interests (fat, muscular, gender non-conforming, educated but working class) gets read as a freak and a discipline case a lot of the time. I imagine that older women in positions of authority might well do the same thing. Again, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't - if I don't use my nicely-brought-up-girl voice I'm an ugly uppity fat queer; if I do use it, I'm a secretary and stupid and could be replaced by a trained monkey.

In and immediately after college, I spent a lot of time consciously learning to talk in a less confident manner - I had faced a lot of social stigma for how I talked, to the point where I was told several times that my confidence made others nervous, etc. Now, I was also a badly socialized person who needed to learn a lot of basic "how to be a friend" and "how to make polite small talk" stuff, because I had quite literally had no friends through most of my teens (fat, weird, poor, smart; rich, conservative town), but this was always conflated by everyone, including faculty, with the fact that I sounded fairly confident when I was talking about things I knew*.

Now that I've started weightlifting and have become a bulkier person, it's amusing to talk to strangers - they are often startled by the fact that I'm a rather diffident person with a soft voice.

*Most memorable incident - students in one of my classes told me that I should stop referencing books I'd read outside of class because it made them feel ignorant, when really I'd only been referencing the books because I thought that no one would believe me if I just asserted something.
posted by Frowner at 7:14 AM on July 6, 2015 [3 favorites]




On a related note: Why Women Apologize And Should Stop (warning: New York Times link). The article actually kinda ticked me off, and some of the comments posted after it pretty much covered why it did:

"Something not pointed out in this piece, and, as aggravating as it may be to women in the 21st century, women, in general, and in the workplace, need to phrase things they want in polite language if they want to get their way."

"It's not really about men not liking women bosses, either. It's about the higher pitch of a woman's voice. The higher pitch makes any demand or assertion sound, to both men and women, more irritating. (A baby's cry, with its even higher pitch, can be really irritating--even if necessary)
So, to combat the effects of sheer biology, women have learned to take the polite, and softer approach, at least many of them. But all people would be advised to use this approach in all things, especially if they want to be heard."

"I am a female professional, and I am of a certain age. For 20+ years I have worked at a fairly high level in a national organization. I use the apologetic form when I want to be sure to be heard by my male colleagues. I don't condone that -- it's too bad it still happens. But I have heard assertive strong professional women described as "shrill" and "abrasive" and "too direct" too many times. In those instances, the actual message the women were trying to communicate just got lost in the men's reaction to the presentation of the idea. Once one hears that kind of response enough times, one adopts the apologetic voice. "Sorry, but am I hearing you say XYZ?" Because I thing QRS" can be more effective than "QRS is the right answer." Again, it's not good. But it's real. "

posted by jenfullmoon at 7:28 AM on July 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


I do wish that more women would own their beliefs and their statements instead of relying on this language of apology, but clearly this is a societal problem for which there are no easy answers.


Except that academic studies of uptalk in particular have found that women don't use it as a way of "apologizing". Here's a description of a fairly famous (in linguistic circles) study of sorority speech:


McLemore studied intonation in one very particular context. She observed uses of intonation in a Texas sorority, where uptalk was not at all about uncertainty or deference. It was used most commonly by the leaders, the senior officers. Uptalk was a kind of accent, or tag, to highlight new information for listeners: "We're having a bake sale? On the west mall? On Sunday?" When saying something like "Everyone should know that your dues should be in," they used a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.

The sorority members' own interpretation of uptalk was that it was a way of being inclusive. McLemore's conclusions are somewhat similar. She says the rises are used to connect phrases, and to connect the speaker to the listener, as a means of "getting the other person involved."


Another study by Vanessa Shokier found that, while men interpreted uptalk as conveying uncertainty and incompletion, men didn't.

When women use uptalk, they aren't being uncertain or apologizing. You're just interpreting it wrong. Think of it as hearing another accent that you're not familiar with.
posted by damayanti at 8:12 AM on July 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'd be more deeply suspicious of people who didn't have vocal tics. If all your answers are snappy, there's probably not a lot of thought in any of them.

My company recently went through the experience of buying expensive enterprise level software. After a couple of meetings I became fascinated with the salespeople. They were almost all male, and they all spoke without any tics or accents. We started calling one particular salesman "The Replicant" just because his speech and manner were so perfectly polished. It was creepy as all hell.
posted by elwoodwiles at 8:14 AM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another study by Vanessa Shokier found that, while men interpreted uptalk as conveying uncertainty and incompletion, men didn't.

I think you meant to type "women didn't"?

And I just typed that question mark then realized it wasn't actually a question so changed it to a period then changed it back to a question mark because it sounded more polite and only then realized that the thought process was ironic, given the topic at hand.

And yes, I use question marks and sometimes uptalk to check in -- "Am I interpreting you correctly?" "Are you listening to me?" "Do you already know this and so I can move on?" Basically, trying to ensure two-way communication is happening rather than one-way pronouncements. I seem to remember older studies comparing leadership styles around the world and finding that American women tended to be much closer in communication styles to male leaders in Asia and Europe, and that American men were the outlier in terms of valuing definitive statements, single-person decision-making, and lack of deference/consensus-building. There's no particular reason any of those "feminine vocal tics" need to be coded as "female," except that they're things mainstream American society devalues.
posted by jaguar at 8:23 AM on July 6, 2015 [9 favorites]


When did "permisssion words" become a problem? Last I checked, we taught kids to say things like "please" (literally a request for persmission: "If it pleases you") when asking for something, and "excuse me" (literally an apology for interrupting, and a request for forgiveness) when requesting someone's attention. It's a way of being polite.

Yep, and I've gotten dinged so many, many times in my professional and personal life for this one in recent years I try not to even use them anymore. It seems to have gotten a lot worse in the recent past, as I don't recall it being something people worried about when I was first entering adulthood.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:00 AM on July 6, 2015


If someone wants to think I am weak for saying please and thank you and excuse me, aka the bare minimum of kindergarten level decent human interaction, I will overhead squat them until they shut up.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:14 AM on July 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Uptalking lets me know the other person cares that I'm paying attention, and am still along for the ride. I zone out a lot because of ADHD so it's nice to get dragged back to the conversation occasionally. It's like the "you get me?" or "right?" is baked into the edge of the sentence. Like hot dogs baked right into the crust of a pizza! Yeaahhhhh
posted by jake at 9:24 AM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I do wish that more women would own their beliefs and their statements instead of relying on this language of apology, but clearly this is a societal problem for which there are no easy answers.

I work in a work place (a very large one) that has been more than majority female for years, and is approaching the same at the junior management level. Women still are in the minority at 30 to 40% at senior management level (VP/C-suite level), but that's been going up every time I have seen new figures for the past decade and a half.

Women who project confidence in what they say are taken seriously in this environment on most levels. Owning and pushing their own words makes them effective. The best women leaders we have (and my current most senior boss is one such), are confident, but laconic and carefully lacking in ticks of all sorts, including uptalking and vocal fry. Senior male managers are similar.

Women at the middle management levels are largely in the process of learning to speak (and think) politically and strategically, and most importantly relationship managing. The effective ones do it instinctively, the bad ones, the micromanagers and those who can't control their surface affects, burn out or generally get sidelined.

I've had the luck to work with some amazing women, people, in very senior roles, from semi-judicial contexts, to public media to, essentially, walking into riots to calm them down. The best, most effective ones, whether management or senior officers or academics, have developed personal charisma though careful management of their speech patterns and communication strategies in general, and have the square backs and straight shoulders to pull it off.
posted by bonehead at 9:26 AM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another study by Vanessa Shokier found that, while men interpreted uptalk as conveying uncertainty and incompletion, men didn't.

I think you meant to type "women didn't"?


Oop, yes! Sorry about that.

And, abstract of the paper here, in case anybody's interested.
posted by damayanti at 9:31 AM on July 6, 2015


When I was in university, I gave a presentation on some of Deborah Tannen's work. I used all sorts of outside sources, discussed the content in full and, honestly, gave an outstanding presentation. I tried to engage my audience, but only the women asked questions or took part in the conversation. I think the guys were trying to protect themselves from saying anything that might be misconstrued. I was heartily applauded at the end.

The teaching assistant gave me a B-, which was miles below any grade I'd received in my career. I approached him during office hours, with a couple of friends standing just outside the door. The TA, a man from a country where women are not permitted to study or work, told me that he could not give me a good mark when the men did not ask any questions and looked uncomfortable. I went to see the prof, who decided to award my presentation grade on the basis of my final exam mark, fortunately. But I never forgot how that TA treated me.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:42 AM on July 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


Women who project confidence in what they say are taken seriously in this environment on most levels.

That's a total chicken/egg thing, though. People who are taken seriously are more likely to expect to be taken seriously and less likely to need to check in to see if people are listening to them. It's not automatic that changing the vocal patterns would change the confidence levels, nor that confident people don't also use some of these same vocal patterns but it's just not noticed because of confirmation bias (which is what the linked article basically argues).
posted by jaguar at 9:47 AM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I asked a female coworker if she had ever been told she needed to change her idiolect in order to command more power in the workplace (anywhere she's worked). She said that it happened once, while she was the only woman at a Humane Society, where a manager told her that behaving like a man was the best way to work with dogs and men who behave like dogs.
posted by shenkerism at 9:48 AM on July 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am seriously considering getting some kind of voice lessons (maybe I need the equivalent of Bully Broads vocally?), except beats me where you find that sort of thing and all I find are singing lessons online in my area.

This may be a little left-field but it's a serious suggestion: find a speech therapist who works with trans women. They will be accustomed to giving clear directions on how to perform femininity with your voice.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:04 AM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's a total chicken/egg thing, though.

I think the equality of the workplace has a lot to do with it too: we are more than 50% women total (and have been for at least a decade) and just under parity at the junior management level.

But, I'm trying to relate how women, in that sort of environment, can be taken seriously by default, rather than as the exception. They all carefully manage their speech and self-presentation (as their male colleagues do too). The uptalking/vocal fry/verbal tic issues are seen as markers of youth (and thus lack of seniority) more than gender, I think, in our context.

Not to say that life is perfect, but that's the way I've seen it operating. We get on-the-job coaching by osmosis but also through formal rehearsals and mentoring. The public-facing roles also get formal media and legal training (i.e. how to behave on a witness stand). Women and men do get the same opportunities and training. From the people I know who've applied those lessons successfully, they can own rooms just by walking in.
posted by bonehead at 10:06 AM on July 6, 2015


The degree of personality-grooming required for most professional gigs creeps me out a little bit, really. It's like you have to adopt the mindset of narcissists/sociopaths/psychopaths (obsessively worrying about and practicing how one's public performances are seen by others to achieve maximum persuasive effect) just to be taken seriously enough to contribute let alone succeed in a professional work place. I've had to learn to get over it and practice this kind of stuff, too, don't misunderstand--no stones being thrown here. I get it really is important and perfectly normal to expect people to master these skills in the real world today. But it still seems so... pathological and weird to me sometimes. The professional habits of sculpting your personal affect and worrying about appearances all the time can bleed into your personal life in ways that can be alienating, too, sometimes, with others perceiving you as inauthentic or too salesperson-like, if you're not careful about turning it off at the end of the day.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:27 AM on July 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's funny, I don't find uptalking to feel inclusive at all, I find it to be anxiety-inducing and EXCLUSIVE actually. And I'm a ladyperson. Too much uptalk starts to make me feel nervous as hell, as if no one knows what's going on and we're all checking with each other? to make sure? that we're all in the right groupthink? or what?

I don't know, I suppose I'm conditioned to find it uncertain and annoying, but I do.

Vocal fry, however, I don't even know if I think this is a real thing. I guess it is because we keep being told it's a real thing, but I just have a low voice (for a woman, I'm told) and I think I have a significant amount of vocal fry but . . I don't care. I've never NOT sounded like this.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:59 AM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


But it still seems so... pathological and weird to me sometimes.

It's "pathological and weird" because it is an affect. It has to be, it's a tool for dealing with people who don't trust you, who are judging you and/or are antagonistic to you. It has to be your emotional protection, as well as presenting to impress.

If done right, it can set people at ease. Done wrong, it can be terrible. And yes, you have to learn to turn it on and off. I don't use interview techniques in my personal life at all (ew), but I'm glad I know how to answer when a reporter asks trick question to provoke me into saying something stupid.
posted by bonehead at 11:03 AM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


[One comment deleted. If you're coming to the thread with a skeptical take, better to engage with what people have said in the thread and what's actually in the article; a blanket dismissal makes for bad conversation.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:11 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


The thing that kills me about the whole "vocal fry" thing (apart from the fact that it's been part of the "Seattle accent" for DECADES and nobody had a problem with it until it got coded feminine) is that it's a common consequence of dropping the pitch of your voice artificially. Which many women do to avoid the dismissal that comes when you speak in a higher pitch range -- that's certainly why I did it at the age of 16, quite deliberately. It really does come down to "The problem is that you're a woman. Have you tried not being a woman? That's what seems to work for most successful people, is not being a woman."
posted by KathrynT at 3:35 PM on July 6, 2015 [18 favorites]


I'm a sample size of one, but my speech is full of softening and verbal tics and I've never been criticized for it, suggesting to me that there is indeed likely a substantially gendered component to the issue.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:14 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Couple of things that are really weird about all this to me as a non-American (and non-native English speaker):
- had already seen "vocal fry" mentioned in some article but no idea what it was, so I went and clicked on the link and saw that video and hmm I’m confused, isn’t it mostly a guy thing, in the US? at least I’ve heard it in speech more from guys. So it’s lousy only if women do it, or because women are overdoing it?
- the uptalk, that is probably the funniest thing: that’s how people talk in Northern Ireland! maybe more a constant flow of ups and downs than just the rising, questioning intonation at the end but really to me it’s such a dialectal/regional thing of English, never associated that to gender. You get that in other languages as well, not just English.
- the "just" and "sorry" thing, ha, that to me sounds like an American English vs British English thing. Really, if you think it’s women who tend to overuse "sorry" then you’ve never been in the UK really. People say sorry all the time. Not just to strangers on the street. Men do this maybe even more than women.

So to me this debate on how women supposedly speak and how they supposedly should speak in order to be taken more seriously (ouch) sounds like, well… a bit narrow-minded? (<-- that’s on purpose, in a Belfast accent)

How can you even talk about patterns of speech and completely ignore all the different dialects, accents, regional variations of English, and patterns common to other languages? If this was about gender, it’d be a constant difference between genders at global level, across different countries and cultures and dialects and languages, but it isn’t. Those differences count a lot more than male/female, no?
posted by bitteschoen at 4:39 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


On construction sites in Quebec most women talk like lumberjacks (des bûcherons), low class french, truncated with lots of slang and cursing. Making themselves seem dumber and tougher than they are. It is an armor to avoid /rebuff harassment and an act to fit in. It is horrible to see and many (same as men) never make it to the higher quality jobs with highly skilled tradespeople (which I would qualify as being attentive to detail, attentive to the needs of other trades, not talking much beyond the job at hand and generally being positive (can do) which comes from enjoying and taking pride in the work and knowing the result before starting, there also tends to be much more intelligence) where we are still hard asses and can alpha-dog any dude who needs to be put into place, but working with competence the atmosphere is way more relaxed, happy, helpful and polite. The seemingly uneducated front doesn't really have it's place beyond joke, you can just be deferential and will get deferentialed back. Also in french there is a fair bit of hand talking, perhaps more than in English, but it is probably still more individual than cultural. (This is totally my own notion and not supported by any data or studies I'm aware of, so I could be totally wrong and Anglophones may be just as prolific hand waggers).
posted by phoque at 6:35 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


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