COLUMN: It’s time for the WAP (Women Against Patriarchy) to speak

Women should not have to change their voices and edit their language to suit a male audience.
Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential nominee, speaks during the vice presidential debate. Kim Raff/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cela is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about daily life for The Maneater.

“I’m speaking.”

A simple but effective sentence that not only asserts power but conveys confidence and conviction. Senator Kamala Harris said “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” during the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate for herself and womankind.

Historically, women have had to edit their language to accommodate a male audience and sound more masculine and respectable. At the same time, when they try to emulate masculine speech patterns they have been criticized for speaking with the same candor, tone and volume. Whether it be female politicians being “too emotional” or the female rappers on WAP being “too explicit,” hypocrisy proliferates all fields and governs the language deemed appropriate for women.

During the Brett Kavanaugh Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, the difference between Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s behavior showcased the hypocrisy surrounding male and female speech. While Kavanaugh later described his hearing as “emotional,” and raised his voice several times, Ford calmly answered every question. Kavanaugh was given lenience for his behavior during the trial, citing the stressfulness of the trial affecting his behavior. If Ford had acted the same way, her testimony would have been regarded as “overly-emotional” and therefore a discredit to her character.

Ford’s careful control of her voice and conduct is not unusual. To appeal to a broader audience, women have gone so far as to professionally train their voices for public speaking. Democratic Debate coach Christine Jahnke advised female candidates to “very purposefully slow your pace and lower the tone a bit, because that will add meaning or gravitas to whatever it is you’re talking about,” according to a New Yorker article.

Jahnke referenced Harris’s communication skills during a 2019 Democratic Debate to her trainees although Harris was never a client. Jahnke identified Harris’s slow pace and use of pauses to add drama as effective communication practices to command the stage.

Women should not have to change an essential part of themselves — their voice — to appeal to a male audience. Interpersonally, women communicate very effectively but are often not in positions of power. Therefore, they must appeal to a male audience often in power. When voice training, women can change their pace and tone, but female speaking patterns go much deeper than that.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, writes about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships. Her research highlights linguistic style, referring to the person’s speaking pattern features including “directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, and the use of such elements as jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions and apologies.” Linguistic styles also act as indicators for how that meaning is interpreted.

According to Tannen’s research, when women speak in groups they share anecdotes and seek to emphasize ways they are familiar. For men, when they speak in groups they grapple for leadership through giving orders, telling stories or telling jokes. Women also tend to downplay their certainty when speaking. Men minimize their doubts, causing their language to be more assertive. Women edit their language with “just, like, I think, maybe, sort of,” and preface their questions with “I’m sorry.” Their linguistic style reflects a passivity and unwillingness to step on toes.

Ladies, it may seem frivolous, but take the time to count the “I’m sorrys, likes, justs and maybes.” Then, consciously work to eliminate them. Doing this will convey conviction, certainty and confidence.

However, the impetus to change should not be placed wholly on women. It’s up to people, namely men, in places of power to learn more about linguistics and the varying ways women communicate to understand them better. The disconnect in linguistics causes many men to overlook women because they misinterpret what the woman is trying to say. A woman waiting for her turn to speak may seem passive, but to her, waiting for everyone to get their turn to speak is polite and considerate. On the other hand, interjecting her voice may come across as bossy and an imposition.

Tannen also identifies that women constantly seek to affirm their connections in interactions, which is why they will seek approval and acceptance from friends and peers.

“In the social structure of the peer groups in which they grow up, boys are indeed looking for opportunities to put others down and take the one-up position for themselves,” Tannen says. “In contrast, one of the rituals girls learn is taking the one-down position but assuming that the other person will recognize the ritual nature of the self-denigration and pull them back up.”

Therefore, when a girl asks if she looks fat, the correct answer is always “NO” and should be followed up with “you’re perfect” (but this in no way is meant to insinuate that being fat and perfect are mutually exclusive). She looks to her peers for an answer she already knows. Similarly, many women ask for advice looking for empathy and connection, not a solution.

Still, women are not completely at fault for their linguistic style. It’s a combination of societal and structural forces that teach them starting at a very young age how they must speak in order to form relationships. It doesn’t help that they’re met with hypocrisy at every turn.

Women can’t seem to catch a break when speaking. In an article for The Cut, Tannen says women are penalized for speaking indirectly and for speaking directly.

“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,” Tannen said. “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.”

So what to do when linguistic style works counterintuitively? Keep speaking. Take more time and make less self-edits because it is deserved. I’m talking WAP, WAP, WAP; Women Against Patriarchy.

In pursuit of racial and social equity, The Maneater encourages its readers to donate to Girls for Gender Equity. This organization “acts as a catalyst for change to improve gender and race relations and socio-economic conditions for our most vulnerable youth and communities of color.” Donate at: https://www.ggenyc.org/donate/

Edited by Sofi Zeman l szeman@themaneater.com

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