You sound pretty certain to me.

This past summer I worked for Barnard’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) for high-school women and future leaders as both a Program Coordinator and a Speaking Fellow. While leading Speaking Fellow sessions I challenged the young women, as I do all of my students, to be aware of their use of verbal fillers and qualifiers like, well, “like,” “um,” “I think,” and “you know.” This feisty group of young women responded, “Why is it bad that I say ‘like’? I didn’t always, but with my friends, it makes them feel less threatened by what I have to say. It makes me friendlier.” Again in my speaking fellow session last week I heard, “Especially in seminar, as a freshmen, no one wants to be contrary. Just coming out and saying what you mean can sound, well, mean.” These young ladies were proposing that “like” is not always a filler – something we speaking fellows usually define as a word that has no meaning and it used to fill space – but actually can be a deliberate tool for diluting a thought which otherwise might be perceived as abrasive. I had already been toying with the idea of verbal fillers and qualifiers as (predominantly feminine) strategic rhetorical devices, but mostly with skepticism. The events of YWLI week and this semester have only deepened my confusion.

In the middle of YWLI-week I took twenty of the program’s students to UN Foundation’s headquarters to meet with the goddess of American-UN relations: Gillian Sorenson. The girls mentioned their speaking fellows session, to which Gillian responded with glee that she wished she had taken a similar course or workshop much earlier in life. She next explicitly stated that learning to lower voice, speak slowly, and appear confident are essential for young women aspiring to be a professional in any field. I was blind-sided. Pace, confidence, modulation: these are all things I always preach in my sessions. But deeper? Lower? While I have always been hesitant to be prescriptive in my coaching, particularly in a way that might reinforce a gendering of public speaking, here was a woman I revere, and truthfully emulate, saying exactly the opposite.

Just yesterday, while waiting for the lethargic 600 elevator, I skimmed an article in Spec (http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/10/23/i-m-being-serious) by Noel Duan, called Like, I’m Being Serious, that commented on how dress and voice have often worked against her and her fashionable friends: “When we arrived on our respective ivy-covered college campuses, we were shocked to hear people tell us that we sounded or looked dumb.” Noel cites her up-talk (otherwise known as Unintended Terminal Interrogatory, when every sentence ends with a question mark) and her designer wardrobe, as factors that repeatedly lead her to be perceived as less intelligent. This phenomenon of girls who are smarter than they look and sound is not new, as voice and dress have repeatedly been categories of analysis for female intellect. Noel muses that sometimes, “critiquing capitalism while carrying our Louis Vuitton purses feels inappropriate,” but I’m interested in the other double standards she refers to. She quotes a friend who mentions having lowered her voice at work because women simply have to compromise in certain situations in order to be taken seriously. So tell me, Noel and Gillian, why don’t men have to be convertible in this way?

For starters, we rarely ask men to be convertible. Hegemonic masculinity is relatively explicit and straightforward (also exclusive, a sexism we will talk about another time), which translates into uniformity of normative masculine performances like dress and speech. Take, for example, models of style: the suit is the staple of man’s wardrobe that prepares him for work, a date, the theater, a wedding, etc. A woman would need a suitcase of options to concoct gender-normative appropriate outfits for each of these scenarios. And voice? While the young girls of YWLI were busy preparing a toolbox of speech-modifiers like fillers, tone, and depth, the few male friends of mine who I consider commendable speakers have professed to never considering the quality of their voice. Rather, they only consider specific verbiage and argument as factors that might affect how they are perceived.

In class just this morning, a wide-eyed underclassman with purple feather earrings raised her hand to say, “I’m a little confused… it just feels to me that, we’re like, super confined by this politically realist, heteronormative matrix.” Her uncertainty was not convincing, and I’m convinced she was in fact confident about the limitations of our realist study.

Both the up-talk of Noel and the YWLI students and the down-talk that Gillian advocated are certainly valid rhetorical strategies: but on either end of the spectrum, aren’t we still just reinforcing that for young and aspiring professional women, saying what you mean is never sufficient?

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