July 28th, 2015

Oh, Look! Values Talk About Voices!

http://www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices

I'm gonna start with some specifics, just to get them out of the way.

"Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert argues that women shouldn't have to change their voices to suit society. ... "People are busy policing women's language and nobody is policing older or younger men's language," Eckert tells Gross."

When women in power say that men are not subjected to the same forces that women are subjected to, they almost inevitably are revealing themselves as the same insensitive cads that they complain men in power are. Younger men's language is policed relentlessly: by parents, teachers, potential and actual employers and random other men and women on the street. I know this is happening. How do I know? Because I've heard it done my entire life and I DO NOT EVEN HAVE ANY BROTHERS. I still hear it being done now. Before you say, oh, but that's just to stop swearing. No, no it isn't. They are constantly being nagged at about pauses, hesitation and uncertainty. Men _do_ get a big boost during puberty when their voices drop. We perceive deeper voices as more mature/authoritative, but that's honestly because we have long history of big men having power. There have been local times and places where some guy with a high squeaky voice had a lot of power and you bet that everyone in that time and place imitated that guy (listen to my husband on the subject of the Barcelona lisp some time).

Eckert is correct that women _should not_ have to change their voices to suit society. And they really don't. But there are going to be consequences if they don't. In any round of activism, there are the sellouts who try to assimilate and adapt to the dominant mode and there are idealists who try to force a change to the dominant mode. You really do get to pick which crowd you are going to join (cheat sheet: bad frame! What you're looking for here is someone navigating the middle ground between two extremes).

"before that I had never really thought about my voice, one way or the other. No one had ever commented on it to me. ... I was hurt — that sounds a little silly, I'm a big girl, I write all the time on the Internet, and so I'm used to criticism, but there's something really personal about your voice, and especially if it's something you've never thought about as unpleasant. It's not fun to hear that people find it irritating."

That is the language of someone who enjoyed immense privilege. Until she didn't. I know, because I sure didn't enjoy a lack of criticism of my voice growing up. I didn't even know that a lack of criticism of one's voice growing up was a form of privilege. But look. There it is. I have to wonder: if you are wandering around with a severe case of upspeak right up to the point where you're getting quoted on NPR, were you some fucking queen bee bully in high school? Because that's where that speech pattern was entrenched when I was younger (that particular pattern hadn't taken off yet when I was that age, but I sure saw it in high schools of younger friends).

I have no particular complaints about Sankin. Sankin sounds like she understands that speech patterns are just another attribute of culture, like dress and grooming. And if you want to climb a status ladder, you'd better understand how to use the tools for that ladder (to mix a metaphor). When Grose says "white men" as short hand for Nerds Picked Nerd Dress Code, I am forcibly reminded of a little trip in an elevator I took with some Wall Streeters, probably back in 1997. They were all suited up: jacket and slacks, ties and dress shirts. And they were _soooooo_ uncomfortable in the elevator with all of us. Anyway. In this one particular elevator ride, after everyone else got off, they very tentatively asked a few questions about just how bad did they look being all in suits when it was clearly the Wrong Dress Code Choice for the environment. I said they shouldn't worry about it, they were Suits whether they wore them or not, but if they wanted to make it easier to talk to us, ditching the ties wouldn't hurt and might help. I also said they should NOT attempt to look like the developers because they weren't and we would be offended if they tried. You want to talk about cultural marker enforcement in the workplace, let's STOP talking about white men and START talking about those mandatory 3 inch heels and short skirts. It isn't men enforcing that code.

Also, when Grose says the sweats thing wasn't dominant 20 years ago, she's only kind of right. She's kind of right because it wasn't sweats, but the 20-30 year old Silicon Valley and Nerd Culture dress code was every bit as transgressive and policed then as it is now. I _definitely_ remember how transgressive it was to put decent clothes on (I knew the difference -- remember, raised JW, went to Kingdom Hall 3 times a week and pants weren't allowed. If you didn't wear hose, you would be mercilessly talked about behind your back by young people and older people, usually but not always women, would come right up to you and tell you to do different next time) for an interview at another company when I was still working at DEC. Oh, and at DEC? I was in T-shirts and leggings more or less constantly, and if you can coherently explain the difference between sweats and leggings I so want to hear it.

Because I want to mock you after.

Eckert again:

"African-American vernacular English is a very rich dialect, and yet little kids are told they better not speak that if they want to succeed in the world. So the question is, do you knuckle under to that or do you try to make the world change a little bit?"

Whoo boy. Certainly, this is all true. But should my grandfather have taught my father how to speak Dutch? Frisian? Whatever the hell languages and dialects my grandfather knew? (How much did my grandmother learn? She was born months after her parents got off the boat.) Let's stop and think for a minute about how much money and trouble I've gone to to learn stuff that _should_ have been transmitted intergenerationally -- except we decided in the 1930s to make everyone go to public school and abandon their language of origin and teach their children only English so that all children would grow up American and ethnicity would cease to be a source of massive conflict and tension within our already fractured country.

Would I prefer to be member of a less powerful but ethnically richer minority group -- or do I see value in adopting the dominant, mutt culture of the USA? Oh, wait! This isn't a theoretical question for me. Because my _mother_ was born into a Mennonite colony in Canada and at any point I could have rejoined that, reconnected with that ethnically richer minority heritage, complete with the last vestiges of other languages retained on the inside of a group-created wall. Complete with veiling. And with fairly recent conflict with the outside culture about whether the kids had to go to public school or whether the church schools could continue to operate using teachers with no training that any of us would recognize. The Holdemans lost that battle, but a bunch of them then went down and set up the same isolated colony on the other side of a language barrier situation in Paraguay and other South American countries.

It's not nice to have to change from The Way We've Always Done It to The Way Other People Do It. It's not. It's painful. It feels like a loss. Sometimes it really is. But it is often also a gain. If women really want their way of speaking to Win, they can't just argue why they shouldn't change. They'd better start arguing for the benefits and gains to be had by speaking the way they do (Arguments like: But I Always Have Done It This Way are rarely compelling). And I'm not seeing a lot of those arguments (Why It's Good For Your Voice To Go Up At The End of a Declarative Sentence: It Invites Contributions and Allows For Alternative Perspectives -- I'm not joking; this is an argument that could and really should be made, because I've consciously adopted a bunch of female identified speech patterns that I DID NOT GROW UP WITH because I was widely regarded as very unapproachable. By women).

My biggest complaint about the NPR piece, however, is the uninspected Personal Choice frame. That's very American, isn't it? It's okay to decide to change the way you dress, speak, whether you go to church and which one, the kind of food you eat, etc. As long as you Personally Chose. Yikes. I do tons of stuff that I would really rather not, and I don't do it because I Personally Chose. I do it for the effect on other people. Cynically, I believe that for all the Personal Choice rhetoric, that's what other people are doing, too. But then I look at those mandatory heels and short skirts and go, what if they aren't? What if they've so wholly adopted the mindset and values system associated with the dress code of their chosen status ladder that they can't even separate out their own personal values, their own True Self?

Because tragedy isn't lowering your voice or stomping hard on that last syllable of the sentence to make your point. Tragedy is forgetting why you decided to do that, forgetting that there are other valid strategies and other ways of being, that are better suited to other contexts. I know that tragedy well, because difficulty with context is a pretty spectrum-y characteristic. You can imagine my confusion when I realize how badly the rest of the world suffers from it, at least in some ... contexts.

ETA: As to vocal fry, I feel like I probably am not allowed to have an opinion on this. From _my_ perspective, vocal fry isn't even a thing. It's just part of the normal vocal register. However, this betrays my PacNW origins, which means that my location of origin, my preference for lower voices, and my desire to be taken seriously all are perfectly aligned in favor of vocal fry. I don't even understand any of the opposition to it, beyond thinking, you know, if you do that too long, it might get stuck that way. It's _part_ of the range. _Part_.

ETAYA: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/08/the-rise-and-fall-of-katharine-hepburns-fake-accent/278505/

See also: Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Astaire and Rogers singing "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from _Shall We Dance_ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls argument starts at :55, with an argument about the pronunciation of either/neither). I'd like to just point out that _she_ is criticizing _his_ speech. Viciously. And I soooooo love her for it. Altho I love him more for volunteering to change to her way of saying things so they can stay together.

Okay, gotta go to my Dutch lesson, because my parents assimilated and lost the languages of our ancestors. And I completely support them in having done so.