The speech of women

July 15th, 2015

The first time I preached a sermon to the congregation where I was doing my field education during Divinity School, I was terrified. Afterward, I received a lot of positive and helpful feedback that would help to clarify my points, distill my message and better communicate the good news of the gospel. And then an older gentleman approached me. “It was a good sermon, but I could barely understand you because your voice was so shrill.” I was devastated and shocked. As a classically-trained vocalist who had spent a lot of time on-stage, I took pride in my ability to project and enunciate clearly, and I had never been told my voice was too shrill in those settings. Apparently, it was only in the pulpit that I became a screeching harpy.

Lately, a slew of articles critiquing the speech of women have circulated around the Internet. A Google executive tells women to stop using the word “just,” if they ever want to be respected. Women also apologize too much, overusing “sorry." And then there’s vocal fry and upspeak, when the speaker raises pitch at the end of a sentence, causing an affirmative sentence to sound like a question, and overusing “like” and “um.” According to these articles, the ways women speak undermine their authority and expertise, causing them to not be taken seriously.

As Ann Friedman points out in her rebuttal, men also engage in the aforementioned speech tics, but when people listen to men, they are more likely to listen to content. While when people listen to women, they are more likely to observe how she is delivering her message — her tone of voice, the words she uses and her body language. When women speak in a normal, culturally-conditioned manner, we’re told that our language is too wishy-washy, but when we speak directly and with authority, we’re told that we’re too bossy and assertive. Policing our speech is another tool of the patriarchy, another way that women are asked to work around the sexist bias in the world. If we are not being taken seriously, the finger of blame points squarely towards ourselves — the tone and pitch of our voices, the language that we use.

In the religious world, so often we hear the voice of God as deep and authoritative, portrayed by the likes of actor James Earl Jones. For Christians, communication is at the heart of our scripture. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being, and in the Gospel of John, the Word is co-existent and co-eternal with God. After his resurrection, Jesus commissions the disciples to spread the good news through baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20).

Friedman argues that language is not only about making an argument or communicating information in the clearest, cleanest way possible; it is also about building relationship. The patterns of speech women use create understanding and sharing, inviting the listener into a conversation. It is no accident that the Word, God incarnate, is also about building and facilitating relationship between humans and God. Evangelism, spreading the message about God’s redemptive work in Christ, and discipleship, walking in the way of Christ, is also accomplished in relationship, not just communication of information that requires intellectual assent.

Perhaps women, with our shrill voices, our vocal fry and our upspeak, might be best equipped for spreading the Good News after all by engaging in vocal patterns that invite others into relationship with ourselves and with God.

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