I recently watched an interview with the woman many of us love to hate. The one who never seems to understand us and can’t help Australians when they are lost. I’m talking about Siri, or rather the woman behind Siri’s voice. Susan Bennett is used to being a voice-over artist for airports, ATMs and GPS systems, but she found hearing herself as Siri more confronting because of its interactive nature.
I understand Susan’s concern. I provided a voice for a GPS development trial in Australia and did wonder about the abuse my words would cop. After all BMW had to take the female voice out of their cars in Germany because men didn’t like a woman giving them directions.
Yet, Germans aside, most GPs and technology voices are actually provided by a Frau or Fraulein. Perhaps it’s because women sound less confrontational and more comforting? Pleasant without being pushy? Servile? Caring? Or do we just like listening to women’s voices? (No, that can’t be right -- radio executives have long insisted that listeners prefer male announcers.)
Clearly the debate about voices and speech is arbitrary and culturally assigned – after all Siri is a male voice in France and the UK. But it does speak to the different expectations we have about how women and men talk.
Recently US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked about why women ask instead of say and use ‘uptalk’ (a rising inflection) in their speech.
She responded by talking about women’s desire to be liked and fear of being seen as too pushy. The Senator (using a few upward inflections of her own) urged women to adopt a professional veneer where they “speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional."
Many Sociolinguists believe there are indeed ‘genderlects’ (varieties of speech associated with a particular gender) that are culture based and not biologically determined. They include the tendency for women to use the rising inflection, to use less direct speech and use qualifiers or collaborative hedges in our sentences like ‘don’t you think?’ and ‘kind of’. We also, apparently, use verbal ‘tee ups’ like "I'm just trying to say that..." or “Don’t take this the wrong way ” to make our statements seem (with varying degrees of success) more polite and more caring.
In taking on such truisms and working to sound different women are accepting the assumption that a 'masculine' way of speaking not only exists, but is also is superior. But before we tie ourselves in knots about sounding assertive and not aggressive, polite but not weak, kind but not sweet, perhaps we should stop and consider what the hell we are doing.
Because I would hazard a guess (oh dear I’m qualifying) that we are rather more critical and focused on the way women communicate than men. After all, men ‘talk’, while women ‘gossip’, men ‘ask’ and women ‘nag’, men ‘speak’, women are ‘outspoken’. When I worked in radio I heard far more criticism of a female colleague with a childish voice than the many men who had weak high-pitched voices and strong upward inflections.
Besides, many of our beliefs about speech are based on bunkum. While it has long been accepted that women were socialised to talk in ways that lacked power, authority and confidence, these very assumptions are now being questioned. As is the fact that the entire area of speech is so female focused. After all women talk more than men right?
In the public sphere men talk far more than women. Turn on the radio, the TV, listen to ‘experts’ or even have a look around the next party you attend. I hear men. Perhaps privately women are chattier, but when you add up the amount of words spoken in the world, men still come out on top.
Secondly the rising intonation is now seen amongst young people of both sexes. And not just in the Valley boys of Los Angeles. I know more men of my generation guilty of an upward inflection than women. It’s as if they are so aware of not sounding too assertive they’ve adopted the practice. Yet no one seems to notice or criticise it.
In actual fact, the rest of the world sees the high rising terminal as not female, but 'Australian'. It’s got to the stage in Britain where it’s actually known as the Australian Question Intonation and ‘Neighbours’ is being blamed for its spread.
Deborah Cameron (the Scottish feminist linguist not the Aussie ex radio presenter with an AQI) wrote a book called The Myth of Mars and Venus. In it she says the very idea that men and women metaphorically "speak different languages" is one of the great myths of our time. Cameron says research shows men talk more than women and that both sexes engage in cooperative and competitive talk. She argues the entire myth of gendered differences is being used to make women feel that they need to adjust their speech.
Cameron urges us not accept such bogus facts even when they benefit women. Even by hiring more women for jobs in Call Centres all we are doing is perpetuate social prejudice.
What’s more, by accepting truisms we are perhaps buying into the desire to shut women up.
When Catherine Deveny went on Q and A with the then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen she was criticised for talking too much and constantly interrupting. Yet an analysis showed she spoke half as much as Jensen, interrupted the same amount and was interrupted more. In fact, even on that rare episode that had more female guests, the men still managed to speak 64 percent of the words spoken.
Criticising the way women talk is just another way of keeping them quiet. So speak up and in the way you want. But don’t ask Siri. If you ask your iPhone why she is a woman, she would actually answer: "I was not assigned a gender".