The Way We Speak

A friend of mine shared this article on Facebook recently. It lamented women’s patterns of speech being constantly policed and pathologized (as she put it). It mostly focused on a recent researcher’s assertion that women use ‘just’ too much and sound like they are apologizing. It mentioned other (stereotypical) women’s habits too, like our voices rising at the ends of statements, sounding hesitant, and “vocal fry” (creaky voice).

I thought about how I’ve dismissed women speakers for sounding too young or hesitant for some of the reasons stated. And I’ve acknowledged that perhaps it isn’t fair. But I couldn’t help but feel there’s a balance to be struck here. Are those (negative) judgments about women based on their speech unfair? Yes! Are they because our male-dominated culture makes male speech patterns ‘the’ way? Yes!

Is it going to change overnight? No!

So what is an individual woman supposed to do about it? Is it easier to stop uptalk (voice rising at the end of a phrase) or is it easier to change the entire culture? Does an individual woman make the deliberate decision to possibly negatively impact her career in order to “fight the good fight” and hope to change society? I don’t know. I suppose each woman has to decide for herself.

The other thing that struck me about the article was that women aren’t the only people with this problem. People with stereotypical ‘black’ patterns of speech have it too. And people with strong Southern accents (‘rednecks’). It’s not just men that define “proper speech”. It’s also white people and Northerners.

Don’t believe me? How many versions of this have you seen?

ask_axe

Funny thing about these things is that it’s always a white person ‘asking’ for the clarification. Now, don’t get me wrong. There aren’t too many people that are more committed grammar freaks than me, but this isn’t so much about grammar as it is dialect.

When I speak, you can’t tell the difference between when I say ‘pen’ and when I say ‘pin’ unless I’m concentrating very hard to make the ‘e’ sound in pen. If I drop into my usual patterns of speech, they will both sound like ‘pin’. I also had a British person tell me that ‘Jenny’ and ‘Ginny’ are pronounced differently – I didn’t believe her. I seriously did not know until I was in my thirties that those sounds were supposed to be pronounced differently.

Back to ‘axe’. I once had a black co-worker who said ‘axe’ instead of ‘ask’. It drove me crazy. But he was a bright, masters-level educated engineer who did his job extremely well. So why knock that verbal tic of his? More importantly, as this article asks, why expect him to identify with the dominant white “proper English” culture? Axe was, once upon a time, as proper as ask – even Chaucer used it. But now we associate it with the uneducated.

Shame on us. Associate it with the speaker being black if you want to, but don’t assume that it means they are uneducated. (Take the time to read the article too – it’s worth it and not particularly long).

Same goes for Southern accents. My daughter picked up one in preschool from her wonderfully sweet two-year-old class teacher. I fretted about it because I knew people would assume she was uneducated if she kept it through adulthood – which she hasn’t.

Don’t believe me? Just watch the news channels when they interview some small town denizen of Oklahoma after a tornado rips through. “We was just sitting there on the porch when – BAM! it just tore right through my neighbor’s barn!” You are probably already laughing at what an idiot they are.

Now, granted, certain phrases like “we was” typically show a lack of education or at least a lack of dedication to said education. But take away the grammar mistakes, and the accent alone probably makes you mark them lower down the IQ scale. But grammar (and pronunciation) are not the only marks of intelligence. Just take a look at my engineer co-workers.

I’ve got one brilliant former co-worker who writes ‘should of’ when he means ‘should have’.  Several can’t keep track of when to use (or not use) apostrophes or commas. Most use ‘I’ when they should use ‘me’ as part of a compound object of a sentence (an ironic over-correction to the use of ‘me’ for ‘I’ in the subject). Another one pronounces ‘similar’ as sim-YOU-ler. All could likely out-think me on a number of topics in a heartbeat. Their grammar is not a reflection of their education or intelligence.

Most of us wouldn’t judge their intelligence based on those habits though. Because, for whatever reason, those technically inaccurate speech patterns haven’t been tagged as flawed by the mainstream.

So here’s the point I want to get to. Stop judging people by their verbal habits. Those habits are ingrained in them from childhood. It won’t be easy to stop. Because your reactions are also ingrained. But try.

And if you’ve got a unique or stereotyped verbal habit, like pen/pin, axe, sim-you-ler, or saying ‘just’ too much, don’t worry about it. Unless you think it’s affecting what you want to accomplish in life. Then try to change it. And don’t worry about people who tell you you shouldn’t have to change. We’ve all got to make our own way.

Advertisements

Living White

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of race lately. That might seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to think about but it’s been on my mind nonetheless.

One of my cousins recently posted on Facebook that she had just finished watching The Help and the ending had made her cry. A friend of hers posted “The ending made me laugh. Stupid white guilt.”

The comment made me sad. True, I’ve never treated anyone like that and I never will, so from one angle, any guilt I feel is stupid. But sadness is not the same thing as guilt. Furthermore, the people depicted in that movie were living what they thought was normal. What am I doing right now that feels normal but is actually deeply wrong? How will that “normal” be portrayed in movies 50 or 60 years from now? What impacts are we still experiencing from the damage done so long ago? And do those of us benefiting from white privilege have no obligation to address those impacts?

White privilege is a difficult thing to define and a difficult thing to see if you don’t know where to look and it’s a term that surely makes a lot of people roll their eyes. People like that Facebook commenter, without a doubt.

But acknowledging white privilege is not about feeling guilt. It’s about noticing the advantages you have that others don’t, big or small, simply because of the color of your skin.

A black woman sits in the cubicle next to me. In addition to talks about work, our weekends, movies, family, and everything else, we have frequent talks about race. She, along with a couple of other black friends, has opened my eyes to the disadvantages of being black. Being stopped by a police officer because you don’t look like you belong in the affluent neighborhood you are driving in. Being followed by a store employee as if you are about to steal something. People making assumptions about your socioeconomic status and family history.

One of my best friends growing up was black. It wasn’t until recently that I learned why her mother never let her go to the mall with the rest of us. She was afraid that if there was ever a problem – claims of shoplifting or something – her daughter was the one that would be assumed guilty.

This makes me sad. I don’t feel guilty, just sad. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish my black friends didn’t have to warn their children about dangers that I don’t have to warn mine about. I wish they didn’t have to put up with things that I don’t have to put up with.

I noticed a subtle form of racism and white privilege in the cafeteria at work recently. A fairly sweet and friendly woman runs the short-order grill. She jokes around with most of the customers and is pretty accommodating.

Last week, a black man waited for his omelet to be prepared. She was preparing it as she usually does, spreading the egg out thin, then adding the contents to one half and folding the egg over. He asked her if she could scramble it all up together, demonstrating with his hands what he wanted.

She did as he requested but rolled her eyes and told him dismissively that it’d taste the same either way. He didn’t respond. She started harassing him. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to joke around but there was an edge to her voice and animosity in her manner. At the end, she adopted a falsely sweet voice and loudly announced, “Here you go… SIR.”

I found her behavior rude and when I had the opportunity, I slipped away to tell the man that I prefer my omelets scrambled too. She accommodates other odd requests without the kind of belligerent behavior I witnessed that day, but I didn’t make the connection to the possibility of it being motivated by race until today.

Today, I waited in line behind quite a few people. I had a lot on my mind and wasn’t paying much attention. Someone had apparently asked to have his sandwich put in foil instead of the styrofoam box. A woman, black, said that she’d like hers wrapped in foil as well.

I didn’t see the first person get his food but I watched as the grill lady wrapped the woman’s sandwich in foil and then place it in the box. I mentally shook my head, thinking I bet the woman wanted the foil instead of the box.

Sure enough, when she handed the box to the customer, the woman said, “I didn’t want the box.” She then removed her wrapped sandwich and returned the box. She wasn’t overly friendly or demonstrative or apologetic about it but she also wasn’t rude or upset. She was just matter-of-fact. I don’t want the box. Here it is.

When she walked away, the grill lady rolled her eyes at the next customer and said, “As if she expects me to be able to read her mind.”

I was taken by surprise. The customer had not expected her to read her mind. She had misunderstood and the customer had clarified. So why the animosity?

I thought back over the many times I’ve stood in that grill line. The only two times I can think of her being disrespectful to a customer’s wishes was with these two people, who shared one distinct trait.

Was I experiencing a small form of white privilege? Were all of us white people going through that line being afforded more respect than the black people? Did we have more right to express our wishes? To be served by friendly and helpful staff? To ask for something special?

I believe we were. Now, there’s always the possibility that when you start looking for something, you’ll see it even where it isn’t. I recognize that. And maybe I’m doing it now. Or maybe I’m finally waking up and truly seeing what’s going on around me. What I’ll do with the enlightenment is still an open question.