Are we too self-conscious about the way we talk?

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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?

Wrong.

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".

 

 

14 comments

  • I make direct, assertive statements and refuse to "feminize" my manner of speech in business. Guess what? I'm highly disliked by my equals, absolutely loved by my superiors.

    I have been told many times by co-workers of equal standing that I need to "ask" more, and I will quote directly "bolster peoples egos by making them feel like they are above you" because "a woman's power is in her softness". My response? "When hell freezes over".

    My superiors love me, and I have risen fast in my work place.

    My take on this is that "feminized" speech is code-name for "submissive" speech, and fragile little egos need to be surrounded by submissives in order to feel good about themselves.

    I guess it all depends on what you want to be and what you want to achieve. Do you want to be the well-liked doormat? Or the well--paid CEO?

    Commenter
    QueenofCups
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 28, 2014, 9:10AM
    • It's funny RE the upwards inflection, this is a massive "Australian-ism" which I agree is not gender specific but rather how our language has evolved over the course of decades.

      I worked in a call centre for years and we actually undertook certain lessons and training to neutralise our Australian-isms so as to be more understandable over the phone.

      This involved practicing ending sentences with an even, or downwards inflection as you sound more convincing and credible when doing this. Upwards inflections are often used when asking questions, and our tendency to use upwards inflections in everyday speech gives the impression that we don't really know what we are talking about.

      I have never given thought to whether men or women do this more, as in my experience most Australians do this almost categorically without thinking. There seems to be a correlation also between this and education levels.

      As for GPS devices and other things, isn't it true the user can select from a male or female voice?

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 28, 2014, 9:42AM
      • True, the upward inflection is a sign of uncertainty and timidity, and it's a good indicator of the state of mind of many Australians.

        Commenter
        beria
        Date and time
        January 28, 2014, 11:44AM
      • Yep, ending a sentence with an upward inflection in English has always traditionally indicated a question. So the issue of adding one to the end of every sentence is nothing to do with sounding too feminine, but in sounding like you have zero confidence in the information you are providing.
        In a professional environment this is a killer, as if you sound like you don't even believe what you are saying, what reasonable expectation can you have of the listener believing you?

        As to the article itself, while you could argue that some criticisms are unjustified, I completely disagree that we should stop focussing on the manner in which people speak.
        Communication is as much about how you say something as it is the words actually spoken, and acting like this is not the case benefits nobody.
        For example, your supporting evidence states that men talk more than women, and both engage in cooperative and competitive talk, but that doesn't say anything as to whether they actually use similar language and mannerisms in doing so.

        Commenter
        Markus
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        January 28, 2014, 11:54AM
    • Interestingly the most macho of cultures, the military (specifically the air-force), uses a female voice for it's in-air warning systems. The idea being that in a cluttered radio-space with lots of information coming to you from multiple sources, a female voice cuts through it all and is more easily heard. There's a variety of reasons, notably that the vast majority of voices in that spectrum are male, but there's still the view that a female voice cutting through a male one is jarring, which is what they want for warning systems.

      This is potentially a similar situation with women being accused of interupting a lot more. It's that with lots of competing voices, a female voice cuts through better and is more noticable.

      Commenter
      Regularchap
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 28, 2014, 10:27AM
      • I didn't realize that Siri was a male in other countries. That's...odd. No one I know has ever had an issue listening to Siri. But then most of the people I talk to for any length of time are OK with strong, verbal women. If they weren't we wouldn't be speaking.

        Commenter
        TK
        Date and time
        January 28, 2014, 10:29AM
        • The worst feature of modern speech is using a piece of conversation, rather than a description, to relay a story. Instead of describing what we said or did, we use a conversation phrase which actually says nothing. It's lazy and ugly speech. Want more respect and to sound like an adult? Check these examples.

          Example:
          Then: "I was shocked!"
          Now: "I was like, 'Oh my god!'"

          Then: "I didn't understand what she said."
          Now: "I was like, 'What?'"

          Then: "I was so angry with her!"
          Now: "I was like, 'You bitch!'"

          Then: "I told Brad I wanted to break up."
          Now: "I called Brad and I was like, 'Let's just be friends.'"

          etc

          Commenter
          Dee
          Date and time
          January 28, 2014, 10:40AM
          • Hmmm, I now have some tips on how to stop saying "like" so much in conversation. I have been trying to get rid of that word where it is unnecessary (had to spell check that one, I'll admit). I used to blame it on watching a lot of American television, but at 27 year's old, I think it's time for me to take ownership of what comes out of my mouth!
            (please excuse any grammatical errors, I am a work in progress).

            Oh and Thanks!

            Commenter
            Boo hoo
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            January 28, 2014, 11:35AM
          • This is my favorite comment!
            Like, OMG!

            Commenter
            Shell
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            January 28, 2014, 2:50PM
        • The one aspect of women's speech that's almost always overlooked is their voices - if I ever mention it, others stare at me as though I'm crazy. "Surely a person's voice is just....automatic, like their genes or their eye colour!?!?" NO!!! It's just as controllable as any other aspect and, for many years, young women have been trying their best to lower their vocal tones to the bottom of their registers so they even scrape and sound raw, broken or 'husky'. Anybody who imagines this is natural is kidding themselves. It's pure fashion......and I find it unattractive in the extreme.

          Commenter
          Push
          Date and time
          January 28, 2014, 11:35AM

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