The 4 Absurd Ways People Are Policing How Women Talk

July 28th 2015

Several years ago, somebody berated my mom for saying "you know" in conversation.

"No, I don't know," the person replied. "And I really hate hearing that phrase."

When it comes to hated phrases and speech patterns, "you know" isn't alone. For the past few years, many have come forward to pick apart the way people speak, particularly women. "Vocal fry," which I'll explain shortly, is one of the most heavily criticized speech patterns, and it's often attributed to women. The Guardian writer Naomi Wolf recently spoke out against vocal fry in a piece for the publication, arguing young women should fully embrace being part of the "most transformational generation of young women ever" by ditching this speech pattern. As someone who says she has been "teaching voice to women for two decades," Wolf knows the subject matter well. However, this article received a degree of blow-back for being yet another recent example of people policing how women speak. Here are some speech patterns and phrases that people (but especially women) have been critiqued for using.

1. Vocal fry

Last year, TIME described vocal fry as "the vibrating, world-weary tone heard throughout popular culture—from the droning conversations of the Kardashian sisters to the red carpet quips delivered by America’s favorite quirky girl [Zooey] Deschanel— and, much to the dismay of those they interact with, young American women can’t stop speaking in vocal fry."

A recent study in Plos One found vocal fry can hurt women in the job market, as employers think they are less competent, educated, trustworthy, attractive, and hirable as a result. The research also revealed females tend to be more critical of other females with vocal fry during interviews.

"The negative perceptions of women who use vocal fry are stronger when the listener is also a woman," the paper reads. "Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman."

Two years ago, NPR's On the Media host Bob Garfield blasted vocal fry, which he said is found “almost exclusively among women, and young women at that ... something happens to their voice, as if they have a catch in their throat.”

When Garfield asked his young daughter to mimic vocal fry on the podcast, he said to her, "Be obnoxious."

2. Uptalk

Uptalk is when a person finishes a sentence as if he/she is asking a question. Though many associate uptalking with the California Valley Girl image, D.C.-based vocal coach Susan Miller told TIME that it's pervasive among young people in all parts of the country. Many are quick to say women uptalk more than men, but Miller says she sees it in both genders.

“I would say that the majority of employers come to me because people sound young,” she said. “And it’s the up-talk, the uncertainty, more than fry.”

One law partner explained to Wolf why uptalk is unpleasant at work, "Because of their run-on sentences, I can’t tell in a meeting when these young women have said what they have to say. Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh’. It’s exhausting."

3. "Just"

Last month, an ex-Google and Apple exec named Ellen Petry Leanse wrote in Business Insider that female coworkers and friends of hers too often use the word "just" in emails and conversations. After moving on from Google to a company with a high ratio of female to male employees, she said she began to "sense something [she] hadn't noticed before: women used 'just' a lot more often than men." She explained further in her article:

"It hit me that there was something about the word I didn't like. It was a 'permission' word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking 'Can I get something I need from you?'

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a 'child' word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the 'parent' position, granting them more authority and control. And that 'just' didn't make sense."

At that, she sent a memo to her colleagues alerting them to the dangers of the "j" word and called for an agreement to stop using it.

"We started noticing when and how we used 'just' and outing each other when we slipped," she wrote. "Over time, frequency diminished. And as it did we felt a change in our communication — even our confidence. We didn't dilute our messages with a word that weakened them."

4. "Sorry"

Earlier this year, "Inside Amy Schumer" produced a hilarious skit highlighting how women often apologize for everything from bumping into someone or needing to ask a question.

"[W]e should stop," Sloane Crosley wrote in a recent New York Times article. "It’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem, it’s what we’re not saying. The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions and relaying accurate impressions of what we want ... it’s just as important to articulate exactly what we mean in its place."

While it's true that no one really needs to cushion innocuous interactions with an apology, the campaign to get women to stop saying sorry all the time can come across as another way to make women feel bad about the way they talk. (For example this advertisement from Panteen was released in 2014.)

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