Purvi Joshi / Getty Images

Stop telling women how to talk

It’s sexism, not word choice, that's holding us back

July 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

How many times in the last year have you read an article about what women should really stop doing, being or saying?

The list of our “mistakes” seems endless. New entries appear virtually every day. We don’t negotiate—and when we do, we manage to screw it up. If we want to get ahead, we need to be more aggressive than many of us find natural or comfortable, but not so aggressive that people don’t like us. And if we’re tired of the gender wage gap, The New York Times explains, we need to “speak up.”

Great advice! Except that every time women do speak up, we’re apparently using the wrong words, or the quality of our speech is off-putting: we sound like either little girls or shrill, whiny nags.

Women are constantly counseled, by men and women, to avoid certain words. Words such as “sorry”— we women have a terrible habit of apologizing for everything — “like” and “um.” Even the seemingly innocuous “just” is now supposedly verboten, because, as I recently learned, it is a “child” word that conveys a “subtle message of subordination” and “deference” (um, like, what?).

Then there’s uptalk — uttering declarative sentences with rising intonation, as if they were questions — and the even more dreaded vocal fry, “a low, creaky vibration produced by a fluttering of the vocal chords” and denounced by men and women alike as annoying and unprofessional. Finally, we are encouraged to consider the tone and pitch of women’s voices. According to one study, voters prefer lower-pitched voices, and rate those who possess them higher in “attractiveness, leadership potential, honesty, intelligence and dominance.” It’s even been suggested that men literally can’t hear women’s voices.

All of which makes me wonder: if we could expunge “like” from our vocabularies and do our best James Earl Jones impressions, would we garner as much respect as men, especially in professional settings? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is probably no: Word choices and vocal habits more commonly associated with women are considered unprofessional because they’re associated with women, not because they are inherently unprofessional and women are likelier to behave unprofessionally.  

If most business and political leaders were women, perhaps we’d see articles suggesting that men could advance in these fields if only they’d learn how to speak properly.

The truth is that we talk how we talk for a clear set of reasons, not because we don’t know or care how we sound. Men’s and women’s word choices and manner of speaking, if not the sound of their voices, are culturally, not biologically, determined. Women who enjoy being perceived as female and feminine want to sound “like” women — and most of my female contemporaries (I am 32) grew up identifying with Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Cher (Alicia Silverstone) from “Clueless,” not Tom Brokaw. As Erin Gloria Ryan once argued on Jezebel, “Women are taught that it’s more important to be pretty and socially accepted than it is to be smart,” and we tailor our speech accordingly. Sometimes, as Ryan suggests, we do it to sound less intimidating and more attractive, but I also agree with Ann Friedman’s point in New York Magazine that we do it to establish rapport with and convey affection for other women — and often, I think, just for fun. Some of the smartest women I know are inveterate users of “like” and “OMG” and pepper their texts and emails with emoticons and interrobangs (when I’m feeling enthusiastic, effusive, or extra expressive, I do this too!J).

Should we be panicked by the possibility that we are undermining ourselves with punctuation? Um, sorry, but I don’t think so. First of all, smart women, like smart men, know their audience. On a casual night out with friends, I’ll talk however I want to talk, thank you very much, including cursing like a longshoreman and telling vulgar sex stories if I’m so moved — and, to borrow a phrase from Amy Poehler, I don’t f---ing care if you like it. Would I talk exactly the same way if I were presenting a paper at a conference? No, I would not, and neither would any other woman I know.

Of course, “likes” and “ums” have a way of “just” creeping in, even when you think you’re coming across as polished and professional. But having spent the last five years working for a nonprofit, I can assure you I haven’t been held back by my occasional use of smiley faces in emails or by saying “um” too much in meetings. In fact, I can think of at least four senior executives who use smiley faces in their emails, too.

Granted, the organization I work for is 96 percent female. But maybe that’s the point. I suspect that in women-dominated organizations, our verbal and vocal choices are less likely to be held against us — or to attract attention in the first place.

It’s only when you sound different from what most people expect a world leader or senior executive or news anchor to sound like that your diction and vocal habits are called into question. If most business and political leaders were women, perhaps we’d see a spate of articles suggesting that men could advance in these fields if only they’d learn how to speak properly. 

For now, I am sooo done with being told which words I need to banish from my vocabulary. Sexism is what’s holding women back — and it is the cause of our obsession with women’s “annoying” voices, not a result.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter