Blog: Instead of telling women how to speak, listen to what they are saying

Note to women: don’t swear, don’t say “like”, uptalk is out of the question and never, ever use vocal fry if you want to be considered “appealing”. On second thought, maybe just don’t speak at all?

From the use of “like” and uptalk to the new phenomenon of vocal fry, women have long been ridiculed for the way they talk.

Just yesterday, it was swearing that was in the spotlight as a vocal trend women shouldn’t “break into”. According to journalist Martin van Beynen, it makes “girls, ladies…less appealing”. Just like critics of vocal fry and valley girl speech, van Beynen states women’s use of swearing “contribute(s) to the sad decline of a facet of speech and communication”.

To be respected in society, women have repeatedly been told they need to change their speech patterns. In the 80s and 90s, it was Valley Girl speech and women’s use of uptalk (when a sentence rises in pitch at the end making it sound like a question when it actually isn’t) and “like” that was viewed as unacceptable, making them sound “tentative or even ditzy”. Commonly associated with young women, this trend and its purported lifestyle was pariodied in films like “Clueless” and “Heathers”.

Recently, critics of women’s speech have moved on to the phenomenon of vocal fry. This is best described as “creaky voice”. It is a gutteral growl in the back of the throat caused by a slow fluttering of the vocal chords. Just like uptalk and “like”, it is a speech pattern commonly associated with young women and has been modelled by young celebrities, including Zooey Deschanel, Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears.

Not only are these speech patterns associated with the decline of speech, they are also found to be contributing to perceptions of women as “less competent, less educated and less trustworthy and less hirable”.

However, it is not just women using these patterns of speech. Rather, they are just the ones being penalised for it. Witness, for example, the use of uptalk. American research has found that both men and women use it. In the past 20 years, use of uptalk has transcended the boundaries of age and gender. However, men just don’t think they do it.

In a study of young Californians, the researchers found that uptalk was used by all of their speakers “despite their diverse backgrounds in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, bilingualism and gender”. Similarly, uptalk is used throughout New Zealand and is not specific to any gender, class or race.

Even vocal fry is prevalent among men, as highlighted by This American Life host Ira Glass. Glass admitted that he too uses vocal fry, except no one notices or criticises it. Even noted academic Noam Chomsky has been found to use it, but, as with Glass, no one has ever taken issue with it.

So why is it that only women are ridiculed for using such speech? Could it simply be sexism? Well, yes. No matter how women speak, people always seems to find a problem with it. When we use the embellishments noted above, we are seen as immature or stupid. Similarly, it has been found that when women speak in a forceful manner at work their perceived competence drops by 35% – a much bigger drop than men who behave in a similar way.

Women’s use of speech is not a problem. It is just “another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalise women’s voices”. It is just another example of a lack of respect for women, especially young women, and what they say.

And of course, this criticism of speech patterns is not only directed toward women, it extends to people of different class, race, gender and sexual orientation. Basically, if you don’t speak in “proper English”, like those at the top of the speech hierarchy expect you to, you will be penalised.

But maybe, just maybe, the critics should stop worrying about the “sad decline…of speech and communication”. Instead, it should be recognised that it is young women who are the innovators and incubators of vocal trends. As has been identified by linguists, “women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average” when it comes to vocal trends. So, rather than grizzling about someone’s speech, critics should start actually listening to what they are saying. After all, it is the content that matters more than the perceived quality of delivery.

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  1. Work for NCWNZ – Claire Newton - 30 March 2016

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