Hmm. Is it sexist – or even misogynist – to advise women to talk with authority? Marybeth Seitz-Brown at Slate is more or less arguing that, and I don’t think I agree.
Last week, I gave an interview on NPR, and while most of the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, I also received several messages suggesting I change my voice so that people will take me seriously. Why? Well, I uptalk. But I’m not ashamed of it, and no one else should be either.
Uptalk, in case you’ve missed several years of media frenzy, is using a rising intonation at the end of a phrase or sentence. What’s the matter with that? Well, that rising intonation is similar (although not identical) to how any English speaker sounds when asking a question, so to some people it sounds as if uptalkers are speaking only in questions, and are thus not very confident.
Well I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of uptalking, but that’s not the issue. Talk of being ashamed seems like a deflection. And I gotta be honest: I hate uptalking myself, and I do think people should avoid it in places like interviews on NPR. (By the same token, I think Terry Gross should get rid of her many vocal affectations so that she would sound more professional and, yes, authoritative in a job she’s been doing for more than thirty years.) One thing I hate about uptalking is that it seems to demand a response from the listener at the end of each sentence – a grunt, an “uh huh,” a brief check of some sort – which is a burden, and silly. I do think it’s a bad habit to get into, at least for people who have to do some talking as part of their jobs.
And the same applies to talking in a baby voice, and to saying “like” every fourth word, and to any other leftover from childhood that adults should leave behind. I don’t think it is specific to women, and I don’t think women should be immune to the criticism.
I really do appreciate these listeners’ concerns, but the notion that my uptalk means I was unsure of what I said is not only wrong, it’s misogynistic. It implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.
No, I don’t think it is misogynist and I don’t think it does imply that women should speak like men. I think adults should talk like adults, at least in situations like NPR interviews.
I believe we can do better than that. We can evaluate the merits of an idea based on the soundness of its reasoning, not the pitch range in which it’s articulated. We can reject the knee-jerk habit of dismissing people for the sound of their voices without actually hearing what they have to say. And—rather than telling women to talk like men or shut up—we can encourage each other to celebrate the different rises and falls, the creaks and quakes that make up our voices.
Well how about not creating a false dichotomy? It’s not a forced choice between talking like men and shutting up, it’s advice not to talk like a fumbler or a child if you can help it.