Tag Archives: Suzette Haden Elgin

Let’s Talk: Policing My Own Voice

I recently posted a piece on how women’s voices are being criticized and discounted via both voice policing and tone policing. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-sx)

Now I want to talk about another kind of voice policing – the kind I am learning to apply to myself.Woman covering closed mouth. Speak no evil concept

Over the years, my voice has done things that I didn’t intend for it to do, principally driving away acquaintances, potential friends, and even established friends. I believe that part of this phenomenon has to do with my tone and how I express myself.

Expert linguist (and noted science fiction author) Suzette Haden Elgin described it this way: “For English, more than half of the information is not in the words but in the body language, including the intonation of the voice – the melody of the voice – that goes with the words.” (https://www.scribd.com/doc/78998622/Suzette-Elgin-The-Gentle-Art-of-Verbal-Self-Defense-Overview)

Most people know intuitively what certain vocal intonations mean and how they can be used to alter the meaning of a sentence. In the movie My Cousin Vinny, a character responds to an accusation of murder by saying in a tone of disbelief and horror, “I shot the clerk!!!??” When this part of the interrogation is read aloud in court, in a level tone, “I shot the clerk” sounds like a confession.

The difference is in the “melody” of the two utterances.

The effects of tone or melody can even be recognized in two- or three-word sentences. Here’s an example:

“Don’t do that” simply means not to do something – give the cat a treat between meals, for example.

“DONT do that” means “I know you think that’s what I told you to do, but you’re mistaken.”

“Don’t DO that” means “You’re annoying me.”

“Don’t do THAT” means “That idea is ridiculous, idiotic, or harmful,” and possibly “You’re an idiot.”

Or think about the shades of meaning you can convey with one syllable: “No.” “Yeah.” “Right.” They can mean exactly the opposite of their definition, along with dozens of other shades of meaning: disbelief, denial, offense, uncertainty, questioning, agreement, scorn, and “You’re an idiot.”

Vocal intonation is very difficult to convey in writing without extra punctuation or modifiers like “in a level tone.” My unfortunate inability to understand vocal melody – or to produce the correct one – is likely the reason that my statements are misunderstood. They come out sounding like sarcasm, snark, or know-it-all superiority, none of which is likely to be appreciated by the hearer.

And that’s been my problem. Unintentionally, I have been making verbal attacks on people. To quote Elgin again: “Any time you hear a lot of extra stresses and emphasis on words or parts of words, you should be on the alert.” The hearer may not be able to identify what makes the sentence an attack rather than just rude (which I am also quite capable of accidentally producing), but she or he can tell it’s not pleasant.

Every time I have said, “Don’t do THAT” instead of “Don’t do that,” I have made an impression that I am a snotty, overbearing, judgmental person.

I have a particular memory of doing just that. A person mentioned casually that she wasn’t going to get a flu shot because she had heard they contained the flu virus. “But that’s how vaccines WORK!” I replied. My tone conveyed “Everyone should know that” and “You’re an idiot.”

I shudder to think how many people I have called idiots without meaning to.

And that’s just in regular conversations. When I attempt to be amusing or humorous, I probably get the “music” wrong a lot of the time and offend. Of course, some of my friends like sarcasm and snark, but I forget that not everyone does.

Talking on the phone and in email or chat is particularly fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding and offense. On the phone, vocal melody is all. The other person can’t see your facial expression – raised eyebrows, frown or smile, puzzlement, a nod of approval. Some people suggest smiling even though it can’t be seen – that it makes a difference in your voice. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that, though.

In email and chat, you don’t even have vocal melody to help. Emojis and <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> can convey expression, but they’re clumsy and easy to forget. The internet is a place where misunderstanding and giving offense are easy to do.

There is one way I have improved my voice. I have trained myself to listen for and use strangers’ names in phone conversations with company representatives: “Here’s my problem, Jackie.” “I appreciate your help, Keanna.” (This works in person, too. Who wouldn’t rather hear, “Kevin, I have a question” than “Waiter, I have a question”? It’s right there on the name tag. I can remember that for half an hour, especially if I reinforce myself by using it.)

Does it actually matter whether servers and customer service people are offended or encouraged by my tone? I like to think that it does, and that vocal melody makes a difference to the service I get and the next person’s too. And it’s a way of practicing controlling my vocal tone.

I may never have a toned body, but I’m doing my best to have a properly toned voice!

Dodging Nosy Questions

“So, when are you and Janet going to give your mother grandchildren?”

“Why spend $300 per hour on a shrink when it’s not going to do any good anyway?

“Why do you always eat junk food when you know you have high blood pressure?”

“Are those boobs real?”

Questions you can’t answer. Questions you don’t want to answer. Questions you want to slap a person for asking. Questions that are just begging to start a fight. We all hear them, sometimes from our nearest and dearest, and sometimes from total strangers.

There is an answer – other than “Shut up and leave me alone,” which may indeed be your initial reaction, but usually isn’t the best solution. (Except maybe to the boobs question.)

Noted linguist and author of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense Suzette Haden Elgin recommended a technique called the “Boring Baroque Response.” It’s not a skill everyone has at the ready, but with a little practice, you can expand your ability to deflect the nosy and the belligerent.

The essence of the Boring Baroque Response (or BBR) is storytelling. No matter the question, you stare off into space and launch into the longest, most rambling story you can. Here’s an example:

Idiot: “Why do you always eat junk food when you know you have high blood pressure?”

You: “That’s interesting you should ask. It reminds me of when my parents and I were visiting Cousin Jim and Cousin Addie – you know, the ones that lived near Natural Bridge and had that kitchen that was painted all black. And whenever we visited my sister and I played in the hayloft. But it didn’t have hay, it was really bales of straw. Dried-out corn cobs, too, which they fed to the animals, like the mule. I rode that mule once, bareback, and you wouldn’t believe how bony its backbone was! Anyway, Cousin Addie was making biscuits and gravy – sawmill gravy with milk, not red-eye gravy with coffee – and Cousin Jim always said….”

Keep going as long as necessary until the questioner gives up and goes away. As Elgin noted, “A response like this delivers the following message: ‘I notice that you’re here to pick a fight. Do that if you like, but it’s not going to be much fun for you, because I won’t play that game.'”

According to Elgin, the secret of the BBR is to deliver it with a straight face and a thoughtful, reminiscing tone. Sounding sarcastic or snotty will give away the game. And although the example was (vaguely) related to food, as the question was, it doesn’t have to be. The story can be about your sister and how she wanted to be a veterinarian, which she would have really been terrible at because….Well, you get the idea.

My husband had a version of the BBR that he used when he worked in community-based corrections. He would regale the “clients” with stories full of analogies – “You know when they make steel how they forge it first in really high heat and then plunge it into cold water. Well, that’s kind of like….” He could rarely get out more than a sentence before the listener would edge away, saying, “No stories, please, Mr. R. I’ll behave. I’ll be good. Just no story!”

I don’t know if Elgin ever heard it, but the best BBR I know is the monologue that Grampa Simpson produced when asked to break up a union meeting:

“We can’t bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways…. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. ‘Gimme five bees for a quarter,’ you’d say. Now where were we… oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. I didn’t have any white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones….”

Now that’s classic TV! Just like the episode of WKRP when Mr. Carlson had an idea for a promotion and Les was supposed to report on it live from the shopping center, but the one store didn’t want him standing in front of it because customers couldn’t get in, so then….



Books, etc.: Remembering Suzette Haden Elgin

A few days ago a friend informed me that Suzette Haden Elgin had died. This was not unexpected. She was almost 80, and had been in ill health for a while, and suffering with dementia, along with other disabilities.

I never met her, except through her work, but I mourn her passing.

Suzette was a trained linguist, a language maven, and a writer. She is perhaps best known for her books in the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series. Though not as well-known as Deborah Tannen’s or John Gray’s works, Suzette’s are practical, straightforward, and supremely useful.

She was interested in many aspects of language. She thought and wrote about language and religion, language and politics (especially framing), language and women’s issues, language and perception, language and culture, and more.

For many years she kept up a Live Journal and two newsletters. Under the LJ name Ozarque, she stimulated thought and discussion of her many fields of interest. These were lively, educational, interactive, and fascinating forums in the way that Live Journal blogs are meant to be and seldom are.

She was a writer of science fiction novels, stories, and poetry. I was astounded by her Native Tongue series. (Who besides me could possibly be interested in feminist linguistic science fiction? Many people, it turns out.)

In the Native Tongue series, Suzette described a newly created “women’s language” called Láadan. She and others pursued the idea and constructed a grammar, a dictionary, and lessons available online – way before anyone tried to do the same with Klingon.

She worked on new fiction until the dementia descended. In her LJ, she would sometimes post poems and songs (particularly Christmas carols) and solicit feedback from her audience, sometimes incorporating their suggestions into the piece. The Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Elgin Awards are given in her memory.

She attended science fiction conventions, where she could meet and interact with her readers. One she often attended was WisCon in Madison, WI, the premier feminist science fiction convention, and in 1986 was one of their Guests of Honor.

On a more personal note, she once took the time to give me feedback on a piece I was writing about bullying, also a concern of hers.

She was a kind, humane, quirky, quick-witted, creative, varied, engaged, humorous, brave lady and a brilliant scholar and writer. I will miss her and her work. The world is poorer for her passing, but richer for her legacy.