Editor’s note: The perspective in this piece adds to a different perspective we published on the topic of women and speech. We share both works for you to consider multiple perspectives on the topic that we hope will inform your opinion. Enjoy!
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As a woman, it seems it’s become more difficult than ever to express myself without my speech being scrutinized. And I’m not alone—women are constantly bombarded with complaints about their speech that are uncalled-for and sometimes even contradictory. Whether we’re “bossy” and “domineering” or lack “confidence” or “assertiveness,” we’re relentlessly pressured to contort ourselves to be more like men. To make matters worse, many of the speech patterns that are commonly criticized in women tend to go unnoticed—or are even praised—among men. No one should have to micromanage their own speech to appease the arbitrary whims of others. Here are four “feminine” speech patterns that you should not be ashamed of.
1. “Excessive” apologizing: Why you should apologize as unapologetically as you want
A friend told me recently that her colleague had pulled her aside to rudely reprimand her for “apologizing too often.” He said that it made him feel “uncomfortable.” Her response captured the frustration that many women feel in the face of this unsolicited advice:
“What do you want me to do about it? Apologize?”
It’s become trendy to make fun of women’s penchant for saying “I’m sorry” more often than men. Amy’s Schumer’s viral “I’m Sorry” skit satirized the habit by portraying women undermining their own authority by repeatedly apologizing. And countless self-help books such as “Girl, Stop Apologizing” advise that successful, respected, and powerful people don’t apologize.
There are even apps that can monitor how frequently you apologize in emails to help you eliminate your apologies altogether. The assumption behind this is that apologizing is inherently bad and reflects “weakness” and a low self-esteem. But why do we reflexively assume that a speech habit is bad just because it’s associated with women?
Some psychologists actually believe that people with more confidence are more likely to apologize and that narcissists avoid apologies to preserve their egos. Apologizing can also convey empathy, humility, and kindness.
Saying “I’m sorry,” even after trivial “offenses,” can make others feel more comfortable and facilitate friendship and connection. So why aren’t we asking men to apologize more?
Of course, sometimes when women “over-apologize,” it’s when they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. In these cases, they obviously shouldn’t feel obligated to apologize, and we shouldn’t expect them to. But if they choose to, that’s their prerogative, and we shouldn’t presumptuously assume that it means they lack self-esteem.
2. Using “upspeak” doesn’t mean you lack confidence
Have you ever felt nervous giving a presentation in front of a room full of people? Imagine how nervous you’d feel if your professor constantly interrupted your presentation to correct your manner of speaking. I witnessed this cringeworthy and awkward situation recently when my friend presented her brilliant ideas in our graduate-level anthropology class.
Our professor stopped her at least a dozen times because her upspeak supposedly made her sound “less smart and less confident.” Ironically, our professor’s remarks were the only thing that made her feel insecure and unconfident.
“Upspeak,” or “uptalk,” refers to when an upward inflection is placed at the end of a sentence. It makes a statement sound like a question. The myth that upspeak reflects low self-confidence is rampant. And it’s commonly used to criticize women for being “too unsure of themselves.”
But it’s actually untrue. Upspeak serves a lot of useful functions in communication, such as “floor-holding” to indicate to listeners that more is coming. It also invites the listener to engage and respond. As one journalist has put it, “Uptalk doesn’t reflect uncertainty—it’s a demand that the listener evince understanding.”
Upspeak is also a hallmark of speech in certain cultures, such as in Australia and New Zealand. It would be ridiculous and even chauvinistic to say that this means Australians are more “uncertain.” So why do we assume this about women?
3. Using vocal fry doesn’t mean that you’re “ditzy” or annoying
Perhaps because of its association with Kim Kardashian and other commonly-ridiculed female celebrities, vocal fry is often seen as exceedingly annoying. It’s even been described as a “scourge” or an “epidemic.” If you’ve never heard of the term, vocal fry refers to “a way of speaking in which the voice is very low-pitched and has a characteristic rough or creaking sound.” It’s also described as “Valley Girl” speak because of its supposed origins among young women in California’s San Fernando Valley. But vocal fry didn’t originate in the U.S.—it has functional uses in languages around the world. In Zapotec Mayan, it’s used to distinguish between vowels.
And recent studies have found that, contrary to common assumptions, not only women use vocal fry—men use it too. According to Time Magazine, men use vocal fry significantly more than women. One study found that while women use it 10% of the time, men use it 25% of the time. But when listeners have been asked how vocal fry affects their perceptions of people using it, they judge women more harshly.
In this interview, Johnny Depp uses vocal fry very noticeably.
Casey Klofstad, professor of political science, has found that our collective judgment of women who use vocal fry holds them back in the workplace, in school, and in many environments. He states, “Young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.” Interestingly, other research shows that women who use vocal fry are perceived as more “educated, urban-oriented, and upwardly mobile.” So it seems that people have mixed reactions to vocal fry.
Ira Glass, the renowned radio host of This American Life, has said that he receives countless angry letters and emails from listeners complaining about the vocal fry used by some of the women on the show. But it astounds him that they’ve never complained about his voice, since he uses vocal fry a ton (as you can hear in this clip in which he discusses the whole issue).
If you’re one of the many people who find those who use vocal fry annoying, I challenge you to try to notice when men use it, and when people you admire use it. If you find yourself bristling with fury when the Kardashians use it, it could be because you don’t like the contents of what they’re saying, or their personality, and not the vocal fry in itself.
4. Being “quiet” or introverted doesn’t mean you’re weak either
Ever heard of the “strong silent type?” You likely have, but it’s probably only been in reference to a man. It’s a common movie trope (think of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne), and I often hear it used to describe quiet men in everyday life. But I’ve never heard it used to describe a woman, and there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent trope that’s applicable to women.
When it’s used to describe men, it usually implies that the man’s silence is a sign of strength, self-sufficiency, and independence. But when women are “silent” or “quiet,” it’s generally not viewed as favorably. Instead, it’s often assumed to be a mark of “fear” or shyness.
In middle and elementary school, I sometimes refrained from talking to focus on my work or to avoid getting embroiled in the drama of the day. It bugged me to no end when my peers would pressure me to “get out of my shell” or “overcome my fear” when I was simply introverted, not afraid. They didn’t understand that there’s nothing wrong with being in the mood to think and daydream instead of talking. “Quiet” boys were not necessarily embraced either. But their silence would often be perceived more as a sign that they’re smart rather than fearful.
There are some cultures, unlike ours, where silence is actually welcomed. Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” believes that our cultural bias in favor of extroverts is a Western thing. As she explained in an interview, “it’s in our cultural DNA. Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of extroversion. We have always been to some extent a society that favors action over contemplation.” And in our culture, talking (even mindless chatter) is seen as more “active” than silence, even though silence can be more transformative.
Feeling confident is better than “sounding confident”
It’s ironic that so much of the linguistic criticism women receive is that we don’t sound confident enough. Because nothing boosts confidence like unfounded and unsolicited criticism, right? Some linguists have actually argued that young women tend to be “trendsetters in vocal patterns.” This means that we often introduce the vocal trends that eventually go viral among the population at large.
So instead of projecting our assumptions onto women’s speech, we should recognize women as the linguistic innovators that they are.