Let’s Talk: Policing Women’s Voices

Women’s voices are important. Anymore, few people deny that women have something to say.

Why, then, are so many people distracted from what women say by how they say it?

voice2There are two kinds of criticism of women’s voice: voice policing and tone policing. Note that both imply that someone is monitoring women’s speech and “policing” it – telling them what is permissible, or at least what standards they must adhere to if they want to be heard, listened to, and taken seriously.

Voice Policing.
Do you find women’s voices shrill, hesitant, un-confident, not authoritative, or childish? Then you might be one of the voice police.

The voice police pay attention to the vocal characteristics of women’s speech and judge them on supposedly unattractive or ineffective qualities. Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with finding an individual woman’s speech unappealing – too nasal, too soft, too pretentious. It’s when a trait is ascribed to all women – or to a broad subgroup, such as young women – that is problematic. And judging women as a group negatively based on the sounds of their voices is a form of discrimination, especially  it leads to fewer job opportunities.

Two examples of vocal characteristics that raise the hackles on many are “upspeak” or “uptalk” and “vocal fry.”

“Uptalk” is the tendency for vocal pitch to go up at the end of sentences making everything sound like a question. Many people find that this makes the speaker sound insecure. Some even find that it hurts women in their careers, since they read it as lack of confidence. It is also associated with the much-deplored “Valley Girl” speech patterns of the early 2000s. (I must confess that I personally find uptalk annoying, but not enough to “correct” someone who does it.)

“Vocal fry” is the voice pattern that has replaced uptalk as the annoyance of the moment. In some ways the opposite of uptalk, vocal fry involves lowering the voice and speaking with a creaky or gravelly sound. I am told that the Kardashian family do this, but I hear it in Mila Kunis’s whiskey commercials.

The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/vocal-fry-jobs-women_n_5417810.html) discussed the findings of a study that supports the idea that vocal fry harms a woman’s career (other than Mila Kunis’s, I mean).

When evaluating job candidates, participants preferred normal-voiced women 86 percent of the time, and normal-voiced men 83 percent of the time. Vocal fry also appeared to most negatively affect the trustworthiness score.

I have to wonder how many men find that vocal fry suggests untrustworthiness because they hear it as a sexual come-on inappropriate in a business setting. (Let’s also note that the authors of the study contrasted vocal friers with “normal-voiced” women, which implies that vocal fry is abnormal.)

But did you notice that the study refers to men’s vocal fry as well?

In an NPR interview (http://www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices) Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert points out:

The complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. “People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger men’s language. The biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is; men in the U.K, for instance. And it’s considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity,” Eckert notes.

She argues that “women shouldn’t have to change their voices to suit society.”

Tone Policing. Tone policing is another matter, and the more troubling of the two. The Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tone%20police) defines “tone police” as

…people who focus on (and critique) how something is said, ignoring whether or not it is true. They will discard a true statement simply because they don’t like how it was presented.

This is particularly noticeable regarding women in the public eye (or ear). During the recent election season, you often heard Hillary Clinton’s voice described as “shrill” or “nagging.” Her messages often took second place to how her voice was perceived. And protestors or those who are angry about a situation are told to “calm down,” “stop being so angry,” or “not make such a big deal of it.”

Feminists, women (and men) of color, and young people are often the objects of tone policing. In its definition of tone police, the Urban Dictionary gives this example of the underlying sentiment: “You might be right, but since I don’t like how you said it, I demand you apologize!”

An opinion piece in a tumblr blog (http://tooyoungforthelivingdead.tumblr.com/tone-policing) explains:

Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction. … It dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational.

In cases of oppression, aggression, and discounting, being calm is not the automatic response, or even the appropriate one. The post goes on to explain:

When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face…And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression.

In fact, invalidating a person’s experience by telling her or him to “calm down” or not to “get so worked up” or even “where’s your sense of humor?” will not – and should not – have the desired effect, though it may end the interaction. (As I once heard it expressed, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down when told to calm down.”)

Voice policing and tone policing are difficult to notice until someone points them out. Let’s try to remember that the message – the content – is the most important piece of the act of speech. Let’s try not to let the sound of speech overwhelm the substance.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: Policing Women’s Voices

  1. I work in the operating room on a daily basis. I can tell you that tone becomes a huge portion of any verbal exchange – perhaps because we work with prima-donnas who are under pressure, and also because we have masks on. But even if we’re speaking on the phone, saying something with a smile is better received than not. Just try it: put on your best cheshire-cat face and say ‘Go to hell,’ and then say it without the smile. Sounds different – even to the recipient that can’t correlate with facial expressions.


  2. This is a fantastic post! Not only does tone policing and voice policing inhibit open discussion, but they also can undermine a woman’s confidence in a way that might prevent her from speaking up in the first place. It is so important for women to be aware of these things so that criticism can be given the weight it deserves (in the case of tone/voice policing, none).


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