At first blush, all of this speaking advice sounds like empowerment. Stop sugarcoating everything, ladies! Don’t hedge your requests! Refuse to water down your opinions! But are women the ones who need to change? If I’m saying something intelligent and all a listener can hear is the wayI’m saying it, whose problem is that?
“All the discussion is about what we think we hear,” the feminist linguist Robin Lakoff tells me. Lakoff is a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, and, 40 years ago, pioneered the study of language and gender. “With men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. Which is what all of us want others to do when we speak,” Lakoff says. “With women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.”
Men also use the word just. Men engage in upspeak. Men have vocal fry. Men pepper their sentences with unnecessary “likes” and “sorrys.” I haven’t read any articles encouraging them to change this behavior. The supposed distinctions between men’s and women’s ways of talking are, often, not that distinct.
“This stuff is just one more way of telling powerful women to shut up you bitch,” says Lakoff. “It makes women self-conscious and makes women feel incompetent and unable to figure out the right way to talk.”
“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.
–Ann Friedman is just, like, over it?
Sorry for the long quote, but I’ve seen this whole policing-women’s-speech thing come up a lot recently, everywhere from conference talks to Tumblr posts to my local writer’s group.