As a high school history, philosophy, and religion teacher, I spend a significant amount of my time irritating my students by nitpicking at their writing and speaking style: Avoid the passive voice! Don’t say “I feel like” when you mean “I think!” In fact, better not to say “I think” at all; I know you think it because you’re saying it! And please, please try to banish hedging words like “seems,” “appears,” and “almost.”
In light of my full-time occupation, I was intrigued to read Ann Friedman’s take on gender dynamics in language which appeared in nymag.com under the title Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk? Friedman takes inventory of stereotypically female speech patterns that make professionals cringe and supposedly weaken women’s voices. For example, women overuse “just,” implying subordination. They deploy excessive qualifiers (“I’m no expert but…”), thus weakening their voice. And (horror of horrors) they “upspeak” (also known as “Valley Girl lift”), inadvertently conveying a lack of confidence in their opinions.
It would seem to me (see what I did there?) that this is yet another example of social structures of sexism. Women are taught to apologize for their opinions in ways men are not, internalizing a wide battery of verbal patterns revealing these structures. Therefore, speaking advice dispensed by experts from high school teachers to professional coaches is a form of empowerment, teaching women to lose verbal tics and chose language that helps others take women’s voices seriously. Simple, right?
Not so fast. Friedman argues: “Men also use the word just. Men engage in upspeak. Men have vocal fry. Men pepper their sentences with unnecessary ‘likes’ and ‘sorrys.’” There’s simply little empirical foundation for the idea that women are any more prone to verbal tics than men. As linguist Robin Lakoff notes in this article, it’s probably the case that people tend, on average, to focus the content of what men are saying versus the ways in which women say something, but that’s a much different issue than saying that there’s a particular way that women talk. Still more, Friedman follows Lakoff in noting that the “wrong” ways that women speak might not be random, credibility-compromising errors at all, but rather might be highly sophisticated modes of communication that help the hearer identify “what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny.” Many of these slighted patterns in which women (supposedly) speak can create cohesion between speaker and hearer, fostering relationship, which, after all, is not such a bad goal for language.
When I expend entire packs of red Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball Pens wiping out my students’ (male and female) equivocating words such as “seem,” “feel,” “honestly,” and “like,” I’m trying to teach students to make linguistic choices suited for a particular activity or mode of communication in the interest of empowering them. As a byproduct, however, I, and countless others like me, from educators, to dialect coaches, to professional consultants, inadvertently, or even intentionally, create and perpetuate a notion that particular language choices and habits are not well suited to a particular task. Rather, we imply that our stylistic preferences are somehow objectively superior.
Awareness of this dynamic is all the more critical since Friedman’s analysis could be (and has been) applied to a wide variety of racial and regional speech patterns, which are often dismissed as less educated or less credible, rather than being acknowledged as sophisticated linguistic structures that, while distinct from the dominant structures, still communicate ideas and build relationships quite well.
There are good reasons to teach students, professionals, and others to be aware of the language choices they’re making. Part of empowering students for a wide variety of future endeavors means giving them the linguistic equipment to be heard, understood, and believed in a variety of contexts. Still, both in the classroom and out, it’s worth continuing to pay close attention to the language people use: what might someone be trying to tell me based on how they’re telling me? And, more troubling, when does my language serve as a demonstration of privilege and power rather than merely a tool for communication?
Top Image, Fortune The Most Powerful Women 2013, by Flickr User Fortune Live Media, via Flickr Creative Commons, available here.