Stop Policing How Women Speak

Originally posted on Medium.

People are so mad at women. The way they dress, the way they speak, the way they dare to exist in modern society. People are never not going to be mad, but I’m going to try to break down the latest problem with women anyway.

Women sometimes do this thing where they talk and we’re supposed to listen, but they sound so annoying that it’s hard to focus on the content of their message. I mean, who cares what a woman has to say when she keeps doing that croaky vocal fry tone bullshit and every other word is um, like, sorry, just, actually — it’s so unprofessional! What if we made an app that stopped them from using those weak filler words? Maybe then we could take them seriously!

I know what you’re about to say. It’s not about women! When people of any gender talk unprofessionally, they lower their credibility. They sound incompetent and insecure. By eliminating phrases like “I think” and “sorry, I just…” from their language, women can get proper recognition for their ideas and become better communicators. We’re helping women get ahead in the professional world by showing them how they undermine themselves with their linguistic choices.

On the surface, this sounds fair, but it’s loaded with assumptions about the way the world works that aren’t true.

Men use these exact same mannerisms and no one is mad about that.

Men say “like.” Men use vocal fry. Men say sorry when it’s not necessary. Nobody is writing hand-wringing articles about how men are being set back at work due to the way they talk.

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, pointed this out himself last year. This American Life receives countless complaints about the way their female guests talk:

These are some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women’s voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention, so severe as to cause discomfort, can’t stand the pain, distractingly disgusting…

And yet, Glass points out, no one had ever sent in a complaint about his use of vocal fry. Ever.

It’s hard to pretend this is really about vocal fry and not about people finding excuses to be angry at women.

Women can’t emulate men and get the same results. (“Sorry!” by Gordon Joly / Creative Commons)

There are legitimate reasons for women to speak the way they do.

There is a professional benefit to these “annoying” speech patterns that critics have dismissed for the sake of the narrative.

In an article about the supposed need for women to reclaim their strong female voices, one woman explained that she used run-ons sentences to avoid getting interrupted; another woman said she used uptalk exclusively to “placate” authority figures at work. In a professional environment where women are disproportionately scrutinized for their behavior, is it a surprise that some women have chosen a form of speech that protects their careers?

Studies have shown that women are considered aggressive, abrasive, and unlikeable for being successful in the workplace. Speech policers argue that women need to speak more assertively to advance their careers, but there is no guarantee that speaking like a man will help and ample evidence showing that it can actually hurt.

The critic’s narrative says that women are insecure and need to learn to use their strong female voices. Another equally plausible narrative is that women speak this way because it is beneficial for them to do so. It is unreasonable to blame women for the way they speak when they’re in an environment that doesn’t make it safe for them to speak differently.

The “masculine” way of speaking is not the correct way of speaking.

I spent a lot of time figuring out how to articulate this point, and then I discovered that another writer had already explained it perfectly. On the topic of getting women to stop apologizing, Harriet Minter writes,

If being successful in a man’s world means emulating the worst traits of those men, then I’ll take middle of the road thanks. Rather than holding our hands up and apologising for our choice of words, let’s stand up for them. Let’s stand up for taking people’s feelings into consideration when we speak, for not seeing arrogance as a virtue, for thanking people for their contributions and for being sorry for putting our work onto other people. Let’s stop apologising for being women and instead demand that men behave differently.

I highly recommend reading the rest of her article about what she means when she uses “feminine” words like “just” and “sorry.” To summarize here, the point is that these linguistic choices indicate empathy, respect, and appreciation for person being spoken to. It’s not about seeming weak or incapable, it’s about valuing a different culture of communication.

As I’ve written in the past, intersectional feminism can’t be about getting minorities to embrace the dominant culture. This is especially true when the dominant culture is toxic as hell. There are many ways to be successful, but instead of embracing these different styles, we’re blindly telling women to speak more aggressively. (Which doesn’t even make sense, because men do these things too!)

Cher from Clueless with the side-eye game (source)

Enough with the moving goalposts.

People used to complain about Valley Girl speak (like, um, you know?). Then they moved on to vocal fry. The latest in this fascination with policing how women speak is feigning concern about how often we say sorry or use language that downplay our achievements. It’s never going to be enough. There’s always going to be a reason to blame and criticize women.

I think vocal fry is annoying as hell. I try not to say “like” or “um” as much as possible. I downloaded the “Just Not Sorry” extension and I tell my friends not to apologize when they don’t need to. I’m also capable of listening to what women have to say rather than disregarding them based on the way they speak.

Let’s call this what it truly is: sexism. It’s not about constructive criticism or helping women be more confident. It’s about finding any bullshit reason to complain about women. Instead of being so concerned about how half of the population chooses to speak, we should be concerned about why so many people need to criticize women for using their voices.

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