Do Verbal Tics Matter for Girls and Women?

There has been an interesting debate going on about how women/girls speak.  One issue is how women in the workplace tend to apologize more "I don't mean to bother you but wanted to ask...." or preface with qualifiers like "just."

This may be true but I think that women have to have faith in their education and experience and not feel like they can't speak up at work without a qualifier.  And there is surely a difference between verbal tics and actual speaking style (which is probably a combo of parents, area where you were raised and generation).

But I absolutely hate "upspeak" or "uptalk" with younger women.  I can't take anyone seriously who ends nearly every sentence as a question.  (I had this happen in a hospital with two female residents and I took their supervisor aside and told her to help them to get out of this habit because it compromises their professional demeanor)

This article at NY Magazine     says that men do all these things.  My experience is that I find very few men ever engage in these speaking habits and that this is largely a female issue.  But they say that if you strip all the "just", "like", etc. out of female language:
It quickly became apparent that if we were to take the advice of all of our detractors — carefully enunciating, limiting our likes, moderating our tone to avoid vocal fry — our podcast would sound very different. It would be stripped of its cadence and its meaning; it would lose the casual, friendly tone we wanted it to have and its special feeling of intimacy. It wouldn’t be ours anymore. 
No, it won't and millions of women who don't have these kinds of tics are evidence of that.


Anonymous said…
I'm thinking upspeak is the least of problems. James Kunstler from his June 15 blog post re Jeb Bush,
"Note, by the way, that here is yet another scion of the Bush clan who was inexplicably brought up speaking Ebonics: “What the consequences… is?” Say what?"

Interesting Topic said…
I do not appreciate hearing women sound like little girls (or act like them with a high-pitched giggling demeanor ie Alex Wagner on MSNBC) or several NPR women. Having said that, it sure is hard for me to keep my voice assertive when I'm confronted with authority in the workplace. That has dogged me for a long time. . . I'd love to have the control of Andrea Mitchell. She's the current best IMO. And I agree that young women are more prone to it. And I hear it rarely among men. I'm fine with parents and kids because I'm confident. But with arbitrary principals, it's harder. I guess it's harder with any authority figure that is perceived as arbitrary. Puts one on insecure ground. Yet, with my kids who are early primary, I'm always saying to them, now say it like first grader (second grader) to get them out of the baby-talk mode - exp. when they want something.

How we speak is both reflective of our own confidence level socially and our level of perception about how to get what we want from the listener. I have colleagues who can twist principals, IT specialists, custodians around their fingers. Man, I wish I could do that!
Interesting Topic said…
The last comment about twisting people around fingers - really, you have to sound like a little girl with many men in the workplace. These people have an attitude or expectation that they can do no wrong your opinion be darned. And if you want something, play the game. One can say we shouldn't do it, but as long as it works, those who can will continue.
mirmac1 said…
Pardon me, but I don't think that I have that problem...?
Maureen said…
I had this problem (apologizing) when I was in grad school in a male dominated field and I think it really cost me. I would go so far as to say to the prof: "I must not be understanding this because I would have thought you would use the inverse log there" when I knew for a fact he was WRONG. He would fix it and attribute my comment to shear dumb luck. I would also ask questions I knew the answer to because I couldn't stand all of the grumbling murmurs from the people sitting around me who were lost. It has taken me years to get over that socialization. Sometimes I catch myself worrying that my daughter is being rude, and I have to remind myself I that I tried to raise her to be appropriately assertive.

I do use the poor little me thing sometimes on the phone with men I will never deal with again. Because, sadly, it works.
Anonymous said…
When we dismiss the content of what someone has to say because of the presentation - grammatical errors, verbal tics, rising tone making statements into questions - it's just rude. When young men's comments get taken seriously despite the same presentation problems as the young women we dismiss, we need to not just tell young women to get rid of the tics, but consider our own biases.

Maureen said…
Ha! I just typed "I don't know,..." Guess I still have work to do!

My point being, how can people distinguish between people who are confident and knowledgeable and those who really doubt what they are saying themselves if they can't take their words and inflections at face value? The rising inflection at the end, the apologies... those indicate uncertainty with what you are saying. Why shouldn't people believe the way you present yourself? (The "crackle" thing is just one of those annoying fads--I don't put it in the same category.)

(Note that I don't doubt my opinion on this in the least--By typing "I don't know," I was just trying to soften any sense of confrontation goose/gander may have experienced from my words.) <- I went back and bolded "just." Look I did it again!
Interesting, yes, women can use their charms in the workplace but that will only take you so far. And usually, give you the "lightweight" notation in your file.

BUT Maureen is right; playing dumb sometimes is useful. But that's different from everyday speech.

Goose, there's point there for sure. I'm not sure I take young men all that much more seriously because of their speech but I have a hard time following a young woman with tics. I don't think they are dumb but they sound dumb. There's a difference. In the case of the two residents, my husband's life was on the line so yes, I want people who sound confident in what they are doing.
Anonymous said…
I agree that "like/just/I'm sorry" and vocal fry/up-talking tend to be self-undermining for women. The flip side is that in their absence women are often perceived as overly aggressive and bitchy. In fact, I had a former boss tell me that I was "aggressive" and "too intense" when in reality I'm neither of things. And in contrast, the same language in men appearing assertive and authoritative. Perhaps the shift needs to be not so much in knocking women for these tics but in being more accepting of women speaking with authority.

Good point, LL.
Anonymous said…
I agree with LL. I got review comments of aggressive, pushy, intense until I moved out here and the same me working in a different industry got the same comments, but it was poorly taken and my reviews were much worse. I finally stopped being so forceful and went way milder...and then got the speak up, blah blah blah. I really feel in many environments women just can't win.

NE Parent
Josh Hayes said…
I agree with the last few commenters: I think a lot of the "rules" around conversation are intended (deliberately or not) to undermine women. If you speak like I expect a man to speak, I can ignore you because you're pushy/aggressive/being a b****. If you don't speak like that, I can ignore you because you're a woman. We socialize people, men AND women, to accept men talking like men as authoritative, and any other combination is not. My wife works at a large tech company in the area, let's call it "Macrohard", and sees this double standard constantly.
Anonymous said…
My experience as a female army officer is fairly different from the descriptions here. I was always instructed to speak and present myself like an officer, fairly gender neutral (which I guess makes it the normalization of masculine attributes).

Sure there was sexism, but no worse than in any other job. And I knew 100% exactly what the pay chart was - I knew what every guy was making, and what I was making, and it was completely independent of gender, based only on rank and time in service. Equal pay for equal work. And no uptalking.

You had to be able to shoot the bull, but that was a more social thing, more like trash talking or smack talking (and I did struggle with that in anything more than the barest of superficial exchanges), but it wasn't a female thing. There were men who also struggled with finding that level of "camaraderie" and women who were great at it - it seemed to depend a bit on sports background, maybe.

Frankly, I wish more female students were advised about the military as an excellent choice for college - ROTC and the officer training programs are wonderful leadership opportunities, and there's also real college money there.

Signed: JustTalking
Charlie Mas said…
I encourage anyone interested in the differences between men and women in conversation to read Dr. Deborah Tannen's book "You Just Don't Understand". I found it illuminating and useful.

My 8th grade English teacher excised all of the "I think..." and "I believe..." starts to the sentences in my essays saying "If you wrote it the readers will know that it's what you think and you believe. These introductory tics weaken your writing." I took them out of my writing - and I took them out of my speech. As a result, I am a much more forceful writer and speaker.

I sometimes consciously add them when I intentionally soften my speech for tact's sake.

I agree with goose/gander that we should consider the merit of the content and thought in a person's speech (or writing) without regard to their presentation style, but that's not a particularly human expectation. I work at it. I struggle with it. But it is hard.

We are the inheritors of the Greek idea of logos which equated eloquence with truth. Clarity of speech is equated with clarity of thought and those who write and speak in Standard English are granted more credibility and authority. That's just the way it is. I try to work against that bias, but it is work.

I think it is fair for speakers who would like listeners to do the work of overlooking their presentation style, to do their part and take on the work of cleaning up their presentation style.

See? I could have written that without "I think" at the start, but it would seem less like I was really trying to find a middle ground.
n said…
But doesn't starting an opinion with "I believe..." let the listener know that you know you're stating an opinion and not a fact? I think stating everything as if it is fact puts people off because it seems to abruptly close the door on their opinions. In conversation, saying "I think" or "I believe" encourages the conversation to continue and both sides to be heard. Perhaps this refers more to spoken language than written. I am very assertive in my written language but much less so when speaking face-to-face. I don't want to off-put or sound like a know-it-all.
Christina said…
I'm more likely to counter or argue against a statement if I know it to be factually incorrect or if it is obviously a subjective opinion (e.g. "Jason Statham is the greatest movie actor of ALL TIME!") if it doesn't have "I think" or "I believe". If the statement has "I think" or "I believe" I am more likely to accept the statement as fact: "yes, you have convinced me that you think Jason Statham is the greatest cinema actor of all-time. I personally don't know that he is the greatest cinema actor of all-time, but perhaps you and I have watched different movies or different amounts of movies."

OTOH I have said things I know to be true that people have denied or challenged without even respecting me enough to provide a source or reference ( counter-arguments: "dysgraphia doesn't exist, it's just that your child is lazy;" "everyone should be on the same diet even if our bodies have differing allergies and metabolism rates;" , it's like they just deny or challenge for the fun of it. I do not know why they do that, it seems that in some cultures ignorance is a badge of honor.

I also don't get how work colleagues can feel intimidated by someone who doesn't use verbal tics, if the work colleagues themselves don't use verbal tics. How do adults enter the work force with the expectation everyone will conform to their limitations?
n said…
I also don't get how work colleagues can feel intimidated by someone who doesn't use verbal tics, if the work colleagues themselves don't use verbal tics.

I don't think anybody said that, did they? Perhaps I read too fast.
Anonymous said…
No, nobody wrote that outright, but there wouldn't be occurrences of as Josh Hayes described: "If you speak like I expect a man to speak, I can ignore you because you're pushy/aggressive/being a b****. If you don't speak like that, I can ignore you because you're a woman. We socialize people, men AND women, to accept men talking like men as authoritative, and any other combination is not.

The cited double standard about putting people in their place, because to accept that they can have the same delivery of expression without weakening with modifier would put some in their "oogy space." I'd be surprised if secure people who weren't intimidated resented their conversation partners speaking the way they themselves did.

Anonymous said…
Can I just say how much I love having a President who can speak well?

Anonymous said…
And here is a rebuttal to it:


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