Can’t stand the way I talk? Or what I have to say?

January, 2011.

I am a keynote speaker at Telling Stories: Representing Difference/Different Representations at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Which is in and of itself kind of a nerve wracking venture. I mean, come on, you mess up on something like that…in WINTER, it’s not like you can walk home.

The hotel I am staying at is in the middle of a field of ice.

You get the picture.

After my talk, which I think went well, I am at a table signing books, with a fellow writer, when an older man comes up to the table no book to sign.

He says, “Can I tell you something about how you could improve your speaking?”

Anyone who’s ever had someone say something like this knows that this is an entirely rhetorical question. And, if we’re on the conversation of style, let’s say, not great form. Right? You want to give me advice? The least you could be is DIRECT.

Say something like, “I’m going to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

I tell him I don’t want his advice. Of course, he gives it to me anyway.

You spoke too fast.

Too many likes and ums.

“I could barely listen,” he says, with a shake of his head.

Then he walks away.

I am livid.

My friend and fellow writer, Ivan E. Coyote, who is a fabulous speaker, turns to me and says, “You’re steamed about this? After all these people blowing purple smoke up your ass, this is what’s upsetting you?”

Ivan’s point, I’m sure, is that it’s not worth paying attention to one nay-sayer, giving him the power to turn my mood to a black cloud, when Saskatoon is otherwise pretty amazing. If very cold.

Let it go.

I don’t. I steam.

Not because I want to give power to someone who believes it’s their job, their right, to tell me how to talk. But because it is frustrating as shit to have to hear this kind of advice, unsolicited, over and over again. Because this advice is taking place within a larger context, where women, even and especially in places of authority, are still subjected to this kind of personal policing. By men. And by women.

As Debbie [Deborah] Cameron discusses in her article “The New Pygmalion,” the standards of “verbal hygiene” are historically held over the heads of women. This hygiene is most often held up as a kind of “advice,” an offering that is supposed to better the speaker by making them easier to understand, easier to be seen as authoritative, or serious, or smart.

Easier to LISTEN to.

The notion being that there is only one way to sound like you are any of these things.

In her article on vocal fry in The Guardian, Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, offers women advice on how to avoid a patriarchal trap that is penning women into a new way of sounding like something less than the authoritative women they are.

“Patriarchy is inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever — today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain — is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.”

Wolf’s believes that women should throw off the “hobble” of vocal fry and embrace their authentic voices. Wolf even gives us an example of a woman who took “vocal training” to learn how to strengthen her voice, after which “her career soared.”

The best argument against Wolf’s piece, and the many other pieces out there like it, can be read in Debbie Cameron’s response piece here. Cameron describes these same users of vocal fry as “innovators.” Cameron explains that young women, young speakers, are generally at the cutting edge of innovations. Things like vocal fry, uptalk, and slang are not signs of a lack of empowerment, or any kind of internalized patriarchy, but patterns of speech USED BY speakers.

Because we, as speakers, are empowered to use anything from uptalk, to words like “y’all” or “like” or “fuck” to communicate with the people we are speaking to. And the messages we communicate are complicated.

Something like uptalk can be a means of signaling an awareness that a subject, and not a speaker, is delicate.

You could use uptalk when you’re say, on a cell phone, and you want to make sure the person we’re talking to is still there.

Something like vocal fry could be a way of signaling a kind of gravitas. Or, depending on who you’re talking to, a signal that the speaker in question is chill.

We can index qualities of speakers who use vocal fry by using vocal fry.

We can be cagey that way.

When I, for example, am around my fellow drag queens, or feeling a little DRAG, I’ll put a little FABULOUS into my speech. Because sometimes one wants to index the qualities of patron saints like Raja and Raven or Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, the house down.

If, as the result of the use of these innovations, our careers aren’t soaring, it’s worth considering that this is not necessarily because of us as speakers, but might have something to do with the context within which we as speakers are heard.

A context that pre-defines women as hesitant, or less than authoritative.

As needing of assistance, or translation.

In their episode, “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS,” This American Life talked about VOCAL FRY and the many letters they’ve received from people who are clearly very pissed off by it.

Similarly, someone tweeted at me the other day that uptalk must end.

Well, guess what?

It’s probably not going anywhere, so you better figure out a way to live with it or avoid it.

Or, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing, before you write your next letter to Ira Glass, ask yourself what gives you the right to step in and tell someone else HOW TO TALK.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a way of telling someone WHAT TO SAY.

Because, as Wolf points out, “STYLE IS CONTENT.”

One of the things I find most annoying about Naomi Wolf’s argument, aside from the fact that the woman who wrote The Beauty Myth sees no issue in doling out advice to women on how they should verbally dress after writing an entire book on how women are policed by images of beauty, is that it poses something authentic, something essential, about women’s voices at the base of any fake voice we might layer on top of them. And I think that’s pretty bogus.

She uses the phrase “her own voice,” suggesting that the vocal fry phenomenon is “fake,” a performance of a voice instead of THE voice.

What does an authentic female voice sound like?

Is it loud and commanding? Can you have a lisp and have an authentic female voice? Can you have a DEEP authentic female voice? Or a whispery one?

The idea of an authentic female voice doesn’t sound that far from the notion of an authentic female, which, is a concept most helpful to people who are looking to sell things to women to make them FEEL authentic.


So back off, is basically what I’m saying.

Let the lady talk.