Deeper and down: verbal hygiene for men

Like every other feminist in recorded history, I sometimes get asked, ‘But what about the men? Why do you only write about the linguistic injustices suffered by women?’

The short answer is that we live in a world that treats men as the default humans, and that is reflected both in our use of language and in our public conversations about it. Of course men’s speech may attract negative judgments if they belong to a group that’s a perennial target for this kind of criticism (like ‘young people’ or ‘foreigners’ or ‘speakers with working-class accents’), but they are rarely targeted specifically because they’re men. We don’t, for instance, see men’s employers sending them on courses to learn to speak more like women. And when did you last read an opinion piece in a newspaper criticizing some irritating male ‘verbal tic’?

But while men’s language doesn’t attract the same relentless scrutiny as women’s, that doesn’t mean it isn’t policed at all. Masculinity in general is pretty heavily policed, as any man or boy will tell you who’s ever been bullied for his failure to measure up to its exacting standards. But what those standards embody is the same sexist and misogynist belief-system that oppresses women. They police the boundary between the dominant and the dominated, with a view to maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Hence the Prime Directive of masculinity, from which no self-respecting male may deviate: ‘don’t be like a woman’. Don’t throw/run/play like a girl. Don’t like girly things. Don’t cry, or show weakness, or talk about your feelings. Don’t be a sissy, a pussy, or anybody’s bitch.

There are forms of language policing which are clearly related to the Prime Directive. For instance, while researching my last post, about the woman who allegedly faked a ‘deep baritone voice’, I stumbled into a part of the internet where men seek advice, or offer other men advice, on how to make their voices deeper. This quest is based on a simple assumption: the deeper the voice, the more masculine the man. Going lower is desirable, not only because it underscores the all-important difference between men and women, but also because it enables men to claim a higher status among their peers.

As I explored this subgenre of verbal hygiene, I found two things particularly striking. First, it seems to be an all-male affair, a case of men policing other men. Though I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive survey, I didn’t come across a single case where the advice-giver or self-proclaimed expert was a woman. Second, a surprisingly high proportion of it is undisguised quackery, a mixture of old-fashioned snake-oil cures (‘why not buy my patent voice-deepening vitamin supplement?’) and Viz Comic-style top tips, some predictable (‘breathe deeply and speak from the diaphragm’) and others less so (‘use a mentholated chest-rub when you go to bed and your voice will be lower in the morning’).

Of all the top tips I read, I think my favourite was probably this one:

How to Instantly Get a Deeper Voice

Step 1: Tilt your head back as far as you can.
Step 2: Recite the sentence “Bing, Bong. Ding, Dong. King Kong.” slowly, stretching/elongating the “ng” sound for each.
Step 3: Repeat step 2 but at a deeper pitch
Step 4: Repeat again, this time at your deepest possible pitch.

Congratulations, you now have a deeper, manlier and sexier voice. At least for the next day or so. Enjoy.

Reader, I laughed: it’s difficult not to laugh at the picture this conjures up, of men around the world throwing their heads back and intoning ‘Bing bong, ding dong, king kong’. But while the activity itself may seem harmless (if absurd), what’s behind it is arguably not so funny. What I haven’t told you yet is where I found this top tip: it was posted on a forum for followers of the pick-up artist Roosh V. Like other denizens of the manosphere—incels, MGTOWs, crusading men’s rights activists—PUAs buy into a toxic ideology of masculinity and male power, and their obsession with deep voices is clearly part of that. As the giver of the ‘bing-bong’ advice explains,

A deep voice is an inherently masculine strait [sic], being a symptom of both size and testosterone levels. Deep voices elicit attraction from women and respect from men.

Other sources clarify that these two benefits are linked: what really commands the respect of your peers is the ability to attract the ‘right’ women, the ones men regard as trophies (which is also to say, not as people. In this video, for instance, the presenter promises men who follow his voice-deepening instructions that ‘you’ll have your pick of the litter to sleep with’.) What PUAs call ‘game’, meaning ‘manipulating women for sex’, is a contest that pits men against both women and each other: the gratification it provides is at least as much about power and status as it is about sex per se.

But though the game by definition produces winners and losers, a recurring theme in all the advice I looked at is that everyone can be a winner: alpha-male status is not reserved for a few men who’ve won the genetic lottery, but can be achieved by any man who’s willing to make the effort. This classic self-improvement message makes a lot of voice-deepening advice seem very old-school, reminiscent of those 1950s ads where some former teenage wimp who’d had sand kicked in his face once too often explains how, with the help of Charles Atlas, he turned himself into the Incredible Hulk. Along those lines, the PUA prefaces his ‘bing bong’ advice with some personal testimony:

I was born…with a typical, merely average pitched voice. I was also born with a perfectionist streak which when met with discovering game and self-improvement meant maximizing all my attributes as best I possibly could, so having a merely average pitch voice was no longer good enough.

Mr Bing Bong represents the amateur end of the spectrum; at the other end is the slicker, more professional approach adopted by entrepreneurs like Dr Sam Robbins, the purveyor of a formula designed to deepen men’s voices permanently by increasing their testosterone levels ‘naturally’. As he explains in this promotional video, what he’s offering is a more expensive option than chanting or breathing deeply, but it’s also far more effective. And if you do buy the product, you won’t just be rewarded with the respect of your peers and the attentions of attractive women. Your investment will be repaid in actual money. Like the actor James Earl Jones, who was once paid a million dollars just for uttering the words ‘This is CNN’, you will benefit from the scientifically-proven fact that deeper-voiced men earn more than their higher-pitched peers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the claim that lower-voiced men earn more, and I was starting to wonder where it came from. So I did a bit of digging, and eventually concluded that in this case the source was probably an article published in 2013 under the title ‘Voice Pitch Predicts Labor Market Success among Male Chief Executive Officers’. This article reports on a study that examined the relationship between the pitch of a male CEO’s voice and the size of the company he worked for. Analysis revealed, as the researchers had predicted, that larger companies typically had lower-pitched CEOs. These deep-voiced men did earn more than their higher-voiced counterparts, but the income differential was not directly linked to voice-pitch. Rather it was a by-product of the link to company size, reflecting the fact that big companies generally pay their executives more.

There are a number of problems with this study which I won’t dwell on, because for the purposes of this discussion they’re a side-issue; but even if we took the findings at face value, they still wouldn’t license the conclusion implied by Sam Robbins’s sales-pitch–that men can increase their earnings by lowering their voice-pitch. Apart from anything else, the study only makes claims about one particular group of men, namely CEOs of public companies. Why would we expect a deep voice to confer the same financial benefits on Joe the Plumber or Jon the IT guy? Yet I’d guess it’s mostly the Joes and the Jons who are keeping Sam the Snake-Oil Seller in business.

Clearly, Sam’s business model works because so many men share his enthusiasm for the deep male voice. In America it would be fair to say that this enthusiasm is the cultural norm. But there are a few dissenters, one notable example being Dr Morton Cooper, a practising speech pathologist who is also the author of a best-selling self-help book called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. Cooper is a controversial figure in his profession, not only because of his celebrity clients and his popular writing, but also because he is seen as a crank. One reason for this is his forcefully-expressed belief that a cultural bias towards deep voices is leading millions of Americans to damage their vocal apparatus by speaking at an unnaturally low pitch.

Not being a speech pathologist, I can’t say whether the preference for lower-pitched voices is having the harmful effects Cooper suggests, but I don’t think he’s wrong to say this preference exists. Apart from the ideological evidence provided by verbal hygiene advice (in both its male and female-directed forms), empirical investigations in a number of countries suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen over time, to a degree which can’t be explained in purely physiological terms (e.g. as a side-effect of better nutrition or increased use of oral contraceptives). If, as some researchers think, it’s a response to social changes which have brought women into more direct competition with men, that could also be a factor driving the popularity of voice-deepening advice among men themselves.

But to judge from the items I reviewed while writing this post, the main reason voice-deepening advice is popular is not that it promises men increased earnings or higher social status; in most cases its central message is that going lower will improve your sex-life. The proposition that deeper-voiced men are more attractive to women is generally presented as a truism: why else, after all, would this form of sexual dimorphism have evolved? As it turns out, though, this is one of the many mysteries of human evolution about which scientists do not agree. There are competing theories, and the evidence is not clear-cut.

One frequently-cited piece of research on this subject is a 2007 study conducted with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, which found that deeper-voiced male members of the group (where according to the researchers no one used any kind of contraception) fathered more children than those with average voice-pitch. This is compatible with the theory that women prefer lower-voiced men as mates, but as one of the researchers pointed out, it could also be explained in other ways—it’s possible, for instance, that men with lower voices (which implies higher testosterone levels) begin having children earlier.

The same researcher, Coren Apicella, went on to investigate Hadza women’s preferences directly, by playing them recordings of male voices and asking them whether they thought each speaker (a) was a good hunter, and (b) would make a good husband. Low-voiced speakers were generally judged to be better hunters, but there was no clear preference for them as husbands. In fact, when Apicella divided the women into two subgroups, those who were currently nursing infants and those who were not, she found that the nursing mothers actually preferred men with less deep voices. This was puzzling, because women do less foraging while they’re breastfeeding, and are consequently more dependent on the food provided by men. Why wouldn’t women in this position prefer the low-pitched good hunters? Apicella speculates that less deep male voices might be associated with ‘pro-social behaviour’—there’s no advantage in marrying a good hunter if he’s not committed to sharing.

Some scientists believe that the low-pitched male voice did not evolve to make men more attractive to women, but rather to make them more intimidating to other men; a super-low voice suggests high levels of testosterone, which are potentially associated with high levels of aggression. Evolutionary scientists often assume that women are attracted to aggressive men, but feminists might think there are reasons to question that assumption.

Clearly the evolution question has not yet been definitively answered; but whatever the answer turns out to be, it’s unlikely to change my belief that voice-deepening advice for modern men is bullshit. Not only because the advice itself is bullshit (though I’m certainly sceptical about herbal formulas and mentholated rubs), but also because, like verbal hygiene for women, it exploits and magnifies insecurities which are themselves a product of sexism. The response I recommend to men is the same one I’ve spent three decades recommending to women: don’t buy it, either literally or metaphorically. Don’t let a bunch of quacks, conmen and PUAs tell you what’s ‘manly’. Their ideas on that subject belong in a museum, and their advice belongs in the bin.

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Imperfect pitch

Until last week I had never heard of Elizabeth Holmes, the 35-year old former CEO of a company called Theranos which claimed to have developed a revolutionary new blood-testing technology. Investors poured in money, and by 2015 Holmes was America’s youngest self-made female billionaire. But then it all unravelled: the technology was revealed to be a fraud. Last year Holmes and her partner were charged with a number of criminal offences. But what brought her to my attention was a different kind of deception: she’s been accused of faking her much-remarked on ‘deep baritone voice’.

Holmes’s speaking voice was one of her trademarks, mentioned regularly in articles and profiles, and ‘baritone’ became the standard description. Parenthetically, I have to say I don’t find that term particularly apt. Is her voice-pitch noticeably low for a woman of her age? Yes. Does she sound like what ‘baritone’ implies—a man? In my opinion, no. (If you want to make up your own mind, here’s a clip of her being interviewed in 2015). But when the shit hit the fan, it began to be suggested that her baritone was as dodgy as her blood-testing device. Former employees reported that her real voice was much higher, and that sometimes, especially when she’d been drinking, she couldn’t keep up the pretence.

Some commentators seemed to find this vocal deception almost more culpable than the crimes she’d been indicted for. One popular view presented the adoption of a fake voice as a clear sign that Holmes was ‘sociopathic’. Others saw it more as a sign that she was insecure and narcissistic: as Katie Heaney commented in a piece entitled ‘What Kind of Person Fakes Their Voice?’

faking one’s voice is just weird, and embarrassing, in much the same way that bad toupees are: they place one’s bodily insecurities center stage.

But a lot of this commentary is linguistically naïve, overlooking the point that we all ‘fake’–or in less loaded language, modify–our voices for different purposes and occasions. Though many of the adjustments we make are automatic and unconscious (a matter of what social psychologists call ‘accommodation’, or what sociolinguists call ‘style shifting’), some are more deliberate, and may involve consciously controlling our pitch, loudness and voice quality. There are jobs that require this kind of performance (working in a call centre, for instance, may demand the kind of warm, smiley customer service voice I talked about in a recent post), and social situations where it’s conventional to adopt a ‘special’ voice (when playing with a baby, for example, or flirting with a potential lover). Of course, we don’t think of this as ‘faking’, which implies the intention to deceive; but it illustrates the point that people don’t have only one ‘authentic’ way of speaking.

In a case like Elizabeth Holmes’s, though, there’s another possible answer to the question ‘why would she fake a deeper voice’. Women in business, politics and the professions are constantly told that their high-pitched voices are a problem, undermining their authority and making them sound like silly girls. They are explicitly encouraged, and sometimes coached (as Margaret Thatcher famously was) to lower their pitch so that people will take them more seriously. I’m sure Holmes was familiar with this advice–if you’re a woman in business it’s pretty difficult to avoid. But as her story suggests, actually taking it can have a downside.

That was the message of the Financial Times article which belatedly introduced me to Holmes’s story. Titled ‘Pitch Perfect: How To Speak With Authority’, it proposed that ‘women can change the way they sound for more impact, but authenticity is crucial’. Ah yes, the classic mixed message so beloved of advice-givers everywhere: change yourself while also staying true to yourself. How are women supposed to balance these contradictory demands?

deeperLater we hear from an expert, Casey Klofstad, who says that women are ‘trapped’ (his word) between a rock and a hard place. Klofstad has studied the relationship between authority and voice-pitch: readers with long memories might remember me describing some research he was involved in, where judges were presented with two recordings of men or women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’ and then asked which one they’d be inclined to vote for. They showed a clear preference for the speaker whose voice was lower. The conclusion might seem to be obvious: ambitious women should adjust their voice-pitch downwards. But Klofstad explains that it’s not quite that simple. It’s true that ‘lower is better for obtaining positions of leadership’. But at the same time,

the human ear likes averageness, prototypy ‘normal sounding’ voices… We do not like people deviating from their natural voice, particularly in a way that is ‘sex atypical’ (meaning higher for men, lower for women).

How can women extricate themselves from this double bind? Klofstad doesn’t say: his use of the word ‘trapped’ suggests he doesn’t think there’s an easy answer. But there is no scientific finding so unpromising that the advice industry can’t turn it into a business opportunity. The article goes on to inform us that

Research like Prof Klofstad’s has informed a new approach to voice coaching. …Most coaches are now focused on helping people sound like themselves.

Sorry, what? Don’t people who go to voice coaches already ‘sound like themselves’?

OK, you’re right, I’m being disingenuous: I’m pretty sure I know what the writer means by ‘helping people sound like themselves’, because the idea is familiar from another branch of the woman-fixing industry. I made this analogy four years ago, when I published my first post on this general theme:

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech.

‘Helping people to sound like themselves’ is the vocal equivalent of what the beauty industry calls ‘the natural look’, where you apply cosmetics with the aim of making people think you’re not wearing make-up, you’ve just got naturally radiant skin, dewy lips, long dark lashes, etc. Similarly, a voice coach quoted in the FT piece says she doesn’t set out to lower her female clients’ pitch; rather she concentrates on ‘giv[ing] people the confidence to find their natural voice’. By happy coincidence, a woman’s ‘natural voice’ usually turns out to be ‘a couple of notes lower’ than the one she came in with.

But having apparently squared the circle—’see, you can change your voice and be even more authentically yourself than you were before!’—the article takes a further confusing turn. It introduces us to two women who have managed to succeed in their fields (respectively, law and business) despite having not only female voices but also working-class accents. These women say they haven’t been disadvantaged—on the contrary, in fact, they feel they’ve benefited—by sounding ‘down to earth’, ‘accessible’ and ‘authentic’. The writer presents this as a sign of the times: ‘the diversification of business leadership’, she observes, ‘has shifted our idea of what a leader’s voice should sound like’.

Really? When did that happen? Not, I assume in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrill’ voice was a constant reference point in commentary on her supposed unfitness for office. And not in 2018, when the BBC’s decision to let a woman, Vicki Sparks, take charge of the commentary during a men’s World Cup football match prompted a deluge of complaints about her ‘squeaky’, ‘screeching’, ‘shallow’, ‘shrill’, ‘strident’ and ‘annoying’ voice. If we’re so cool with female-voiced authority figures, why are the voice coaches and the advice-givers still in business? Why do newspapers still publish articles like this one?

The last person the article quotes is the podcaster Helen Zaltzman, whose assessment of the current situation is more cautious. Women in her line of work, she notes, have to deal with endless insulting remarks about their voices. Yet Zaltzman is optimistic: the trolls and grumblers, she says, need to wake up and realize that ‘in 30 years’ time, that’s how power will sound’.

I hope she’s right (though it’s unlikely I’ll be around in 2049 to assess the accuracy of her prediction), but to be honest I have my doubts. big voiceNot because I believe what I was taught as a student (that power will always sound male: men’s deeper voices, like lions’ manes, are natural signals of their dominance); more because I think most of the judgments made on women’s voices have very little to do with what those voices actually sound like.

When people complain that a woman’s voice is ‘shrill’, for instance, there’s often no objective, acoustically measurable quality to which that descriptor corresponds. Hillary Clinton is a case in point: if one element of the meaning of ‘shrill’ is speaking at a higher than normal pitch, then Clinton’s voice is not shrill (as an acoustic analysis of her 2016 campaign speeches confirmed). What people mostly mean when they describe a woman as ‘shrill’ is ‘I don’t like her’, or ‘I don’t think this position should be occupied by a woman’. Criticizing the way she sounds is just a pretext for criticizing her—it’s like when racists complain that their neighbours are ‘loud’ or ‘rude’ when what they really mean is ‘not white’.

A similar argument could be made about Elizabeth Holmes’s fake baritone. I don’t know if it really is fake (when I first listened to her voice I didn’t think so–to me it doesn’t sound obviously forced), but in any case, its authenticity only seems to have become an issue after she was exposed as a fraud. Before that, her unusually deep tones were treated as a positive asset: they symbolized her status as an exception, a successful woman in the uber-male biotech industry. Once she had fallen from grace, however, those same deep tones, now reframed as ‘unnatural’, became a symbol of her dishonesty and amorality (‘she lied about everything—even her voice was a lie’). Her voice itself was never the point: the point was what it said, or could be made to say, about her.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should sympathise with Holmes. She clearly lied about more important things, and it’s those lies she’ll be punished for. But most commentary on women’s voices punishes women simply for being women. That’s why I’m so critical of articles like ‘Pitch Perfect’: they reinforce the belief that women have a language problem, when in reality it’s our culture that has a woman problem. And that’s something no amount of voice-coaching will ever fix.

The return of ‘female email’

Do you remember your 2016 new year’s resolution? Was it to get more exercise, maybe? Give up the demon drink? Spend less time on Facebook and more with your real-life friends? Or was it, perhaps, to send ‘more effective email’, as recommended by the developers of an app called ‘Just Not Sorry’?

This app was intended to empower working women by encouraging them to delete ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from their emails. If you hovered your mouse over one of the offending words you’d see a pop-up message from a communication ‘expert’, like “just” demeans what you have to say’, or ‘using “sorry” frequently undermines your gravitas’.

But even this ingenious invention seems not to have fixed women’s email problem. Last month the Telegraph ran a piece entitled ‘Sorry to bother you: how women can stop writing emails “like a girl” at work’. It begins with what the writer claims is a typically female email:

Hello! Hope you’re well and that you’re having a lovely week! So sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you could read the below article I’ve written? No worries at all if not – I know you must be super busy. Thank you so much for your time! Best wishes.

These 50-odd words are like a whistle-stop tour of women’s language stereotypes from the last half-century: they include a ‘just’, two ‘sos’, a ‘sorry’, a ‘lovely’, a superpolite indirect request (‘I was just wondering if you could…?’), and a veritable forest of exclamation marks. If the message had only ended with a smiley face emoji we could all have shouted ‘House!’

This much-maligned email style is generally assumed to be something women acquire in their teenage years, carry with them into the workplace, and need remedial instruction to get rid of. But last week a piece on Canada’s Global News website turned that assumption on its head. According to the reporter Meghan Collie, women in workplaces around North America are being told by their bosses, not to stop writing email ‘like a girl’, but on the contrary, to make their emails more girly.

Take Carlee Barackman, a former employee at a tech startup in Detroit who describes her email style as ‘short and to the point’:

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language… While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it. “I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out. Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant. It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said. “I felt worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional, and also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

Carlee Barackman was only one of the many women who responded to the call Meghan Collie put out on Twitter: ‘Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt pressure to use emojis or exclamation points to soften your message?’ Affirmative answers flooded in, and they suggested that emojis and exclamation marks were only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been told numerous times to soften up my emails. I use smilies and ! In almost every email, and say please and thank you so much it would be weird if we were in person. I also throw in “just” a lot.

I have no idea what you’re talking about [followed by a screenshot of an email that reads “Awesome! I have been in and made the required edits! Thank you 😊]

I have been told to soften my tone, I notice that men and some women that they favor for whatever reason, are allowed to be rude, abusive and abrupt by email or message. The rest of us…get our tone policed. I have used emoji or “if that makes sense” a lot

I think it also comes down to what men can get away with in emails that women can’t — I once had a male manager write in all caps to get his point across.

I find men can get away with being short, rude and degrading but as soon as a woman does it, they get pulled in for it.

I hate exclamation points. Absolutely hate them. …But yes, I feel forced to use them to blend in & be polite! All the time! I’m so excited about absolutely nothing & here’s the punctuation to prove it!

I have consciously been removing exclamation points and emojis, apologies and just-a-quick-question from my emails for years. Why diminish yourself when you are simply communicating?

I read about how women apologize a lot in emails. Especially with saying the word “just”. I noticed how often I did it and it has been a LONG JOURNEY to remove those things from my email repertoire! No need to excuse myself for doing my job.

I confess I was taken aback by these vignettes.  Although I’ve spent a fair bit of my life observing the policing of language at work, the verbal hygiene practices described in this Twitter thread stand out for both their intrusiveness and their pettiness: managers scrutinizing internal emails in minute detail, and pulling individual employees aside (especially, it seems, if they’re female) to warn them about their tone. How is this a productive use of anyone’s working time?

The women who responded to Meghan Collie were also, for the most part, critical of the practices they described, often stating explicitly that the style they felt obliged to adopt did not reflect their own preferences. Some women clearly resented the tone-policing of their email, and a few reported actively resisting it. Many of these resisters invoked the competing, ‘Just Not Sorry’ genre of verbal hygiene to justify their rejection of ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ language. The irony of this–using one kind of sexist bullshit to fight another–isn’t lost on me, but I can’t really quarrel with the perception of ‘Just Not Sorry’ as the lesser of the two evils. ‘Empowerment’ may be a weasel word, but it’s surely preferable to self-abasement.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ message has had a lot of media exposure because it resonates with the aspirational, ‘lean in’ ethos of the media outlets which commission pieces like the Telegraph’s. Precisely because it can’t so easily be spun as ’empowering’, the ‘Softly Softly’ approach hasn’t attracted the same attention. (I notice that no one has developed an app called ‘Soften Your Message’, or ‘Everything Is Awesome!’, with pop-up messages like ‘if you don’t add a smiley face people will think you’re angry’, or ‘do you love your job? Then say it with !!!’) But despite its low cultural profile. ‘Softly Softly’-style language policing is evidently a reality in many workplaces. What, we might wonder, is this about? Why are women–and, to some extent, men too–being instructed to ‘soften’, ‘lighten up’ or add ‘extra fluff’ to their emails?

On closer inspection, what Meghan Collie and her correspondents call ‘message softeners’–things like exclamation marks, emoji, hedges like ‘just’ and stock phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘if that makes sense’–seem to serve two main purposes, which can in turn be related to two overarching norms of workplace communication.

First, there seems to be a clear norm prescribing the explicit expression of positive affect and high involvement. It’s not just that negative messages are frowned on: neutral, low-key formulations like Carlee Barackman’s ‘okay thanks’ are not acceptable either. This is what motivates the liberal use of exclamation marks and emoji (or more exactly, a subset of emoji–smileys and thumbs-up signs rather than, say, piles of poo). As conventional signifiers of excitement, enthusiasm, happiness or satisfaction, they inject a note of unambiguous positivity into even very short and banal communications. Accentuating the positive is also the function of phatic formulas like the Telegraph writer’s ‘hope you’re having a lovely week!’ and the hyperbole of responses like ‘Awesome!’ The message is something like, ‘I want you to know I’m thrilled to be at work, delighted to be communicating with you and eager to show I value your contribution’.

The second overarching norm complements the first: it could be glossed as ‘minimize the risk of conflict or offence by avoiding anything that could conceivably be read as angry, critical, overbearing or even just a bit inconsiderate’. This is the purpose served by formulas like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry to bother you’ and ‘just a quick question’ (implying: ‘I know your time is precious’). It’s also the point of appending ‘if that makes sense’ to, for instance, a series of instructions or a piece of critical feedback. Here what’s being ‘softened’ is the presumptuousness of judging others or telling them what to do.

As some readers will doubtless have noticed, the two norms just outlined call for, respectively, the use of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ politeness. (These terms are taken from the work of politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson: in their model, positive politeness addresses the desire every person has to be approved of or cared about (prototypical positive politeness formulas include ‘have a nice day’, and ‘congratulations!’), while negative politeness addresses people’s desire not to be imposed on (prototypical formulas include ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’).)  As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of my main beefs with the ‘Just Not Sorry’ brigade is their insistence on treating politeness features as ‘fluff’ or ‘clutter’, things that detract from the message and so impede communication, when in fact they’re essential elements of any interaction between humans. Politeness per se is not a problem: taking out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ is only good advice if your ambition is to sound like a jerk. However, two things about the ‘Softly Softly’ approach do strike me as more problematic.

One problem is that the rules are so inflexible. In everyday life, the way we use linguistic markers of politeness reflects our assessment of how seriously what we’re saying might hurt, offend or impose on the other person. You wouldn’t hedge a request to pass the salt in the same way you’d hedge a request to lend you £100; you wouldn’t congratulate someone as enthusiastically on winning a pub raffle as you’d congratulate them on winning a Nobel Prize. In ‘Softly Softly’ world, however, everything gets the same ‘I’m so excited’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ treatment: as some of Meghan Collie’s correspondents observed, maintaining this high level of excitement or solicitude can be exhausting, and it can also come across as quite bizarre.

The other striking thing is the emphasis placed on expressing positive feelings, about everything and to everyone. In workplaces I do think that’s a novel development–particularly if we’re talking about internal back-office communications (accentuating the positive has a longer history in customer service). And what’s behind it, I would argue, is a combination of recent changes in workplace culture and innovations in digital communication.

Over the last 30 years, many workplaces have become less formal and overtly hierarchical, and more focused on collaborative teamwork. In the current era of precarity, companies also tend to have fewer permanent employees and more short-term contract staff. Arguably, these conditions provide fertile ground for things like the demand to accentuate the positive in dealing with co-workers (which displays your credentials as a ‘team player’) and the pressure to display enthusiasm for routine tasks (if you appear bored or disengaged you’re potentially giving your employer a reason not to renew your contract).

At the same time, more and more workplace interactions that would once have been conducted face-to-face have moved online. Email, though still available for the purposes it originally served in business contexts (sending the digital equivalent of letters and internal memos), has also become a medium for co-workers to ask each other quick questions, give brief reports and engage in rapid-fire problem-solving interactions. And what seems to have happened is that the workplace email has borrowed some of the strategies developed for text-based interaction outside work (e.g. on social media and via instant messaging apps), such as the repurposing of punctuation marks to signal affect. (As any teenager will tell you, not putting an emoji or a ! at the end of a text message risks coming across as angry; ending texts with a traditional full stop is rude because it signifies disapproval–though the students who made me aware of this say they try not to judge clueless old people like their mothers too harshly for this offence.)

Imported into the workplace, however, these strategies can create problems that don’t arise, or not so markedly, in other contexts. Some people find email messages larded with emoji and exclamation marks contextually inappropriate–too informal for professional settings, or too personal for interaction with non-intimates. Others find this mode of expression insincere—and not without reason, since at work you’re very likely to be communicating feelings or attitudes you don’t actually have, to people who also know you’re faking, because they’re doing the same thing themselves. (Has anyone ever read a message like ‘I’m so excited for this afternoon’s meeting!!!’ and taken it as a faithful reflection of the writer’s true feelings?)

In principle, the new workplace norms apply to everyone, men as well as women: one man told Meghan Collie that ‘In a previous role, I was told to be “20% friendlier” in my emails and to soften them with smileys’. In practice, however, many contributors to the thread believed that women’s language was more heavily policed than men’s. Whereas men’s failure or refusal to comply with the rules was frequently tolerated (even, reportedly, when this involved such gross breaches as ranting at length in all caps), women could rarely get away with even slight deviations from the prescribed style.

This double standard isn’t hard to explain. The new workplace verbal hygiene is about fostering co-operation and maintaining harmonious relationships by paying solicitous attention to people’s feelings–a responsibility that has been assigned to women since time immemorial. Women are thought to be ‘naturally’ caring, more emotionally expressive than men and more sensitive to others’ needs. We expect them to do more emotional caretaking, we hold them to higher standards, and we punish them more severely when they fall short.

But as depressing as all this is, the Twitter comments quoted earlier give me hope. They show women aren’t just sucking it up: they are critical of the linguistic demands made in their workplaces, and in some cases they are refusing to ‘soften their message’. This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support. Rise up, sisters: you have nothing to lose but your !!! 😊😊–if that makes sense.

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.

 

Can there be a genderless voice?

Back in the 1990s, I worked at a university where my office was half way up a tower block. There were two lifts, and both had voices—one female and the other male. ‘Sixth floor’, they would announce; ‘doors opening!’ But though their scripts were identical, their personalities were not. The female voice, soft and slightly breathy, addressed the occupants of the lift in a warm and soothing tone. The male voice was very different: there was something officious, even hectoring, about its gruff, staccato delivery. These lift-voices, in other words, were gendered as well as sexed, performing a highly stereotypical version of femininity or masculinity.

These vocal stereotypes weren’t new. In the 1980s, when talking cars were all the rage, Chrysler made one which became famous for the stern, almost parodically deep male voice in which it issued warnings and commands. Its most iconic line, much ridiculed at the time and later immortalized by the Kronos Quartet, was ‘a door is ajar’ (you can listen to some more of its output here). Some models used a female voice, but not all drivers responded well to what they perceived as her nagging (‘fasten your seatbelt!’ ‘The washer fluid is low!’): she was nicknamed ‘Bitching Betty’.

Technology has advanced since then, and disembodied voices are everywhere; but we still seem to associate male voices with authority and female ones with deferential service. During a recent three-day period when I kept a record, I encountered only one disembodied male voice, making a security announcement on the London Underground. The other voices I heard–in lifts, shopping centres, supermarkets, trains and buses–belonged to women who all sounded very similar: white, middle-class (though not aggressively posh), under rather than over 45, and ‘feminine’ in the same ways as the 1990s lift voice. Their speech was generally quite soft, often a touch breathy, and pitched in the mid-to-low part of the female range. In many cases it also had a definite hint of ‘smiley voice’ (smiling can be heard even when the smile itself can’t be seen).

The persona this voice constructs is warm, helpful and ‘approachable’–all, we might think, desirable qualities in someone who’s providing a service. But why are they so often voiced by a woman rather than a man? Would a soft, smiley male voice sound too eager to please? Would a man who spoke in those warm, breathy tones sound inappropriately …well, sexual? As the journalist Barbara Ellen observed recently in a piece about the dress codes imposed on flight attendants, female service workers are often expected to present themselves in a covertly sexualized way. Whereas men can satisfy the demand to look ‘smart’ or ‘well-groomed’ just by wearing a jacket and tie, for women those same words may be code for donning heels, tight skirts and full make-up. It’s the same with vocal self-presentation: for women, ‘approachable’ can become a euphemism for sounding, as Ellen puts it, ‘semi-sexually available’.

This issue has become more salient since the advent of a new kind of disembodied voice, that of the ‘virtual assistant’ who lives in your home or in your smartphone. Whereas we don’t interact with talking lifts and cars, our relationship with Alexa, Cortana and Siri is more personal: one recent study which interviewed people about their use of voice technology found that  ‘Alexa, in particular, was often treated as a member of the family, brought into conversations, and asked for “her” opinions’.

The ‘engaging’ personality which has helped to make Alexa the current market leader is clearly gendered. She’s like a male chauvinist’s dream girlfriend: not just warm and helpful with a quirky sense of humour, but also a good listener who only speaks when she is spoken to. She was originally conceived as female, and it was not until 2018, four years after the product was launched, that Amazon gave users the option of switching to a male voice. (Even then, the default setting has remained female.) Apple has offered male voices for longer, but most users prefer the female Siri. That also seems to be true of the nameless Google Assistant, which, like Alexa, started out exclusively female but launched a male-voiced alternative in 2018.

What’s behind this preference? The industry maintains that customers prefer female voices because they’re ‘warmer and more relatable’–an answer that, even if it’s true, begs the question of why we find female voices more ‘relatable’ than male ones. In other situations we clearly don’t: on planes I’ve seen people blanch when addressed by a female pilot. What these biases really reflect is our cultural beliefs about gender roles. We understand that the function of a virtual assistant, like that of a real-life PA, is to make life easier for someone more important; and we think of that as prototypically a woman’s job.

Some feminists have expressed concern about the increasing number of households where children as well as adults are interacting with disembodied female servants. Welcoming the introduction of male-voice options for Alexa and the Google Assistant, one writer suggested that

bossing around a not just female-voiced assistant seems like a healthy step in teaching [children] gender equality and eliminating traditional gender role expectations.

Well, maybe—but arguably the effect will be limited if the voices themselves remain gender-differentiated in the ways I’ve already described. Though male-voiced assistants may challenge the belief that role itself is female, people will still be getting the message that women have to sound ‘warmer and more relatable’ than men performing the same tasks. Is it time to consider a more radical approach—giving voices to machines that have no gender or sex at all?

That was the aim of a team of researchers who recently unveiled Q, described as ‘the world’s first genderless voice assistant’. As they explain on their website,

Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it. Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress. As society continues to break down the gender binary, recognising those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.

Q was developed by digitally altering the voice of a single speaker (possibly, though it’s not entirely clear, one who ‘neither identified as male nor female’), and the most obvious alteration relates to fundamental frequency (F0)—what we mean when we talk in general terms about pitch. After puberty, when the hormone-induced lengthening and thickening of the vocal folds causes boys’ voices to ‘break’ and become lower, there is a significant difference between the average F0 of men and women (though their pitch ranges overlap, and the mean values move closer as people age). Q has been made to speak with an F0 of 145–175Hz, which is in between the male and female averages (these are usually taken to be approximately 120Hz for men and 210Hz for women). To hear how the voice sounds, have a listen to this clip.

Does Q’s voice sound genderless to you? It doesn’t to me: I hear Q as a woman, albeit one with an unusually low-pitched voice. And in this I’m apparently not alone. When the neuroscientist Sophie Scott tweeted out the clip and invited responses, most people who commented thought Q sounded female. The name ‘Q’, unlike ‘Alexa’ or ‘Cortana’, gives no steer in that direction, and nor does anything the voice says. So, what is it that gave us the impression of femaleness?

It could be a lot of things: while F0 is an important clue to sex, it’s not the only one. Some experiments have shown that if you present people with recordings of a male and a female speaker producing the same sound at the same F0, they’re still pretty good at telling the difference. What they’re probably responding to is a number of subtler differences, some of them related to anatomical factors (e.g., as well as having thicker vocal folds than women, men also have longer vocal tracts) while others are more sociocultural. For instance, a number of studies have found that there’s gender-linked variation in the way English /s/ sounds are pronounced—with the tongue further forward or further back in the mouth. To my ear, the pronunciation of /s/ in the clip suggests femaleness; so does the pronunciation of /t/; so, mostly, does the voice quality. So, while Q’s F0 is ambiguous, there’s other information a listener can use.

In fact, ‘can use’ may be a misleading way to put it: it might be more a case of ‘can’t help using’. Distinguishing male from female voices is something we’re able to do from infancy: even if it isn’t ‘natural’, it’s an ingrained and habitual response. Is it possible to make a voice that people will perceive as ‘genderless’? And what do Q’s designers actually mean by that?

As I said when I was talking about the 1990s lifts, voices are both sexed (shaped by characteristics of the male or female body) and gendered (influenced by cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity). When Q’s designers describe their creation as ‘genderless’, I think they’re probably using ‘gender’ to cover both; but in practice they seem to have concentrated on characteristics which are primarily related to sex. This is possible when you’re using technology to create a virtual voice, but it wouldn’t be so easy for an embodied human speaker. Though there are some things humans can do with their bodies that will perceptibly change their voices (for instance, a female-bodied person who takes testosterone will develop a deeper voice), how they sound will also depend on things that can’t be altered, such as the size and thickness of the skull, the length of the vocal tract and the capacity of the lungs.

Speakers have more flexibility to alter their vocal performance of gender. This is what speech therapists who work with trans women tend to focus on: developing gendered speech-habits that communicate femininity (for instance, articulating certain sounds further forward in the mouth, or using a breathier voice quality). But for people who do not want to sound gendered in any way, the question of what to alter is more complicated. What does ‘genderless’ sound like? I don’t think we have a model, and we evidently don’t find it easy to process human speech without using (binary) sex and gender as reference points. On Twitter and elsewhere, people who’d listened to the ‘Meet Q’ clip invariably compared it with their mental templates for men and women: though they didn’t all come to the same conclusions (most thought the voice was female, but some thought it might belong to a young and/or gay man), no one said they heard Q as simply neutral or unclassifiable.

It’s also instructive to consider our perceptions of the voices given to real or fictional non-human entities. Daleks, for example: as far as I know they don’t have sex or gender,  but I’m sure most people who’ve ever heard one would agree that their loud, harsh and monotonous low-pitched voices sound male and masculine rather than female/feminine. That doesn’t mean, however, that people perceive Daleks as literally male. They understand the Dalek-voice as a metaphor, signifying qualities like aggression, ruthlessness and lack of empathy.

In the clip I’ve linked to above, the actor who voices the Daleks also demonstrates how he varies their voices to symbolize their place in the hierarchy. When he gives orders in the voice of the Supreme Dalek he speaks forcefully, using a markedly low pitch; when he voices the subordinate Dalek’s response, ‘I obey’, the voice is lighter and pitched much higher. Though both voices are male-sounding, the second is ‘feminised’ by comparison with the first. This is another example of the conventionalised use of sex/gender differences to stand metaphorically for other differences–notably, as in this case, asymmetries of power and status.

We could also consider the nonfictional Yuki, a humanoid robot used as a teaching assistant at a German university. Yuki’s creators have decided to make their robot male (its human handlers use the pronoun ‘he’), but they haven’t given it a masculine voice: it sounds like a child who could be of either sex. Once again, the point is not to present Yuki as a literal child (who would want a six-year old giving them feedback on their homework?) Rather it’s to capitalise on the associations of the child-voice, encouraging the students who will interact with Yuki to perceive him as cute and unthreatening.

Having given their robot this voice, the designers could in theory have left its sex/gender unspecified. But in that case, what would students make of Yuki? Would they identify the robot as male by default (the same way people automatically refer to any animal that isn’t self-evidently female, from the squirrel in the garden to the hippo at the zoo, as ‘he’)? Would they take it to be male because it’s a robot, a piece of hi-tech hardware? Would they conclude it must be female because it acts as a human man’s assistant? I don’t know, but I think all these scenarios are more likely than the scenario in which they would simply leave the question open. Some roboticists have argued that it’s unethical to give robots a gender, especially where that might encourage vulnerable people to think of them as human, and perhaps develop feelings for them that they can’t reciprocate. But I don’t think it will be easy to stop people anthropomorphising robots, and therefore ascribing sex/gender to them. Especially, perhaps, if they talk.

By now you’ll have gathered that I’m sceptical about the concept of a genderless (and/or sexless) voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the status quo. While I have no problem with the existence of identifiably male and female voices, I do think there’s a need to diversify the ways those voices perform gender, and in particular to move away from the female voice I described earlier, the one the industry calls ‘warm and relatable’, and which I call ‘subservient with a hint of sexual availability’.

I’d like to hear a balance of male and female voices (of all ages, and with a range of accents) both in public space and in digital devices, and fewer female voices which have been manipulated, either by technology or by the speakers themselves, to sound softer, warmer, lower or breathier. The woman who informs you of your impending arrival at King’s Cross is not your mother, nor is she auditioning for a porn movie. The way she speaks should reflect the setting and the message–not some voice designer’s fantasy of femininity.

Should we also be embracing synthetic voices like Q’s? Maybe: I don’t think a lift or a virtual assistant needs to sound like a real person. But we shouldn’t imagine that this will automatically take gender out of the equation. A voice doesn’t have to be perceived as human to be (metaphorically) gendered. Nor should we forget that the binary is also a hierarchy. In practice, what’s presented as ‘gender neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ will often be interpreted as male by default. That’s one reason why I don’t see creating genderless voices as a solution to the problem of sexism. Presenting people with voices they don’t recognise as female does nothing to challenge their sexist ideas about how actual female voices should sound.

Q, of course, was not designed to do that: what its makers wanted to challenge was binary perceptions of gender. But it still seems ironic that they ended up creating something which is not a million miles from the stereotypical female service-voice. I would rather have Q than some of the smiley-voiced fembots you hear telling you that ‘all our agents are busy’, or trying to sell you replacement windows. But if we want to change the attitudes that make Miss Smiley-Voice and Ms Warm-and-Relatable such ubiquitous vocal presences, I think we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

Sexism’s greetings

Last week on Twitter I suggested that if you were looking for a potted guide to patriarchy you could try spending ten minutes in a high street card shop. I meant it, too. Since the 1970s feminists have been relentlessly critical of the sexist messages communicated in advertising, in the packaging of toys and the design of children’s clothes; yet we seem to have had much less to say about the sexism of mass-market greeting cards.

Maybe it’s because cards are ephemeral, displayed for a short time and then discarded. But in Britain particularly, we buy a lot of them: according to industry sources we’re the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of greeting cards, sending about 30 per person per year. Mother’s Day alone accounts for about 29 million sales, and the UK market overall is worth an annual £1.7 billion. Nor will it surprise you to hear that an estimated 85% of all these cards are bought by women. The job greeting cards do–maintaining relationships with family and friends–is a form of emotional labour which is generally considered part of women’s work. And the occasions they mark (births, marriages and deaths, anniversaries and other yearly celebrations) are part of the domestic or personal sphere with which women are traditionally associated. Which makes it all the more infuriating that so much of what’s on sale addresses women in ways that range from patronizing to outright misogynist.

What prompted my comment on Twitter was a photo someone posted of this pair of cards–I assume they’re Valentines, or at any rate intended for courting couples.

card twit

The person who posted the photo commented: ‘ah yes, the two sides of heterosexuality, commerce and toil’. Which is true enough, and sexist enough to be going on with; but what it doesn’t point out is that ‘make me a sandwich’ (or ‘sammich’) is a popular meme in the online manosphere, where it’s used as a put-down meaning ‘shut up woman, don’t you know your place is in the kitchen serving men?’ There’s no comparable implication of subservience in the boy-to-girl card. They might look like two versions of the same thing–one blue, one pink, both displaying the text in the same pseudo-handwriting with hearts instead of dots over the i–but on closer inspection they’re not.

This pair of cards exemplifies three patterns which are common across the whole greeting card genre. First, there’s the fact that the card addresses (or if you’re a fan of Louis Althusser you might say ‘interpellates’) the recipient, and often also the buyer/sender, as a gendered being.  That rule applies at every point in the human life-cycle. Want to congratulate someone on the birth of a baby? Great, but you’ll need to know the newborn’s sex so you can choose the right pastel shade (yep, we’re basically talking about blue and pink again) and the right words–as we all know, there are girl words and boy words. This gendering will continue when you select birthday cards for the child, and later the adult. Even the saccharine verses in birthday cards for older relatives use clearly gender-differentiated language–grandma is sweet and kind, while grandad is funny or ‘brilliant’.

You might think that this gendering is only natural: kinship terminology is systematically gender-marked, and the neutral words that do exist (e.g. ‘parent’, ‘sibling’) feel too impersonal for family occascard friendions. But on its own that doesn’t explain why there’s such a stark difference in the message (the colours, images and words designers select), nor why so many cards addressed to friends rather than relatives are also gendered. The one on the left, for instance, has pink type, butterflies, cupcakes, and the word ‘lovely’–so although it doesn’t say explicitly that it’s meant for a female friend, a competent card-consumer will understand that.

Male friends aren’t ‘lovely’: they don’t listen, understand and support, they joke and josh and take the piss. A quick look at the male friendship cards available via Amazon suggests that humour rather than soppy stuff is the norm,  and offensive humour is particularly favoured (see the masterpiece below, which is described on the site as ‘perfect for male friends and brothers’). card maleThis is the second general pattern–a tendency to make use of the crassest imaginable stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.  Even if you’re looking for a same-sex wedding or civil partnership card you’ll find it hard to avoid gender stereotyping (though you will find rainbows instead of straight-up pink or blue).

But it’s the third pattern that’s most problematic from a feminist perspective:  the use made by card designers of a set of ancient tropes about heterosexual relationships, which appear with monotonous regularity, particularly though not only on cards marking heterosexual milestones (engagements, weddings, anniversaries).  Here’s a husband-to-wife example. card wifeIt’s the old cliché of the ‘battle of the sexes’, the idea of marriage, or more generally heterosexuality, as a never-ending struggle for supremacy between adversaries who also need, desire and depend on one another. From the middle ages to the present, this cliché has often incorporated the idea that even if it’s supposedly men who rule the world, we all know that in reality it’s women who have the upper hand–talking incessantly, bossing men around and spending all their hard-earned money (sorry, what century are we in again?) Men put up with this because they love women: it’s a case of ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’.  Or as this card, spotted a couple of years ago in a university bookshop, put it:

women

Call me old-fashioned, or maybe just a humourless feminist, but it’s difficult to find this joke amusing when you know that in Britain the number of women killed by men–the majority of them current or former partners–is 2-3 a week. When that point was put to the manager of the bookshop, she agreed, and said she’d stop displaying the card. But most examples of ‘battle of the sexes’ humour aren’t as shocking as this one, and their banal sexism continues to flourish unimpeded.

card christmas maleThe other recurring heterosexual trope could be summed up as ‘all men are only after one thing, and all women are always gagging for it’. This kind of humour is probably most familiar from ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, but it also has a history on Christmas cards (some of them designed by the most famous of the seaside postcard artists, Donald McGill).

 

Today the language can leave less to the imagination.  card bushcard rudeLike the ‘I’d buy you flowers/make you a sandwich’ cards at the beginning of the post, these two Christmas cards (intended to be sent, respectively, from wife to husband and husband to wife) form a complementary set: one speaks in the voice of a female, the other in the voice of a male. But once again, these two voices aren’t just saying the same thing in slightly different words. As in so many representations of heterosex, the male speaks as an active sexual subject,  whereas the female adopts the receptive position. Incidentally, the website where I found these explains that the designer is a woman: she draws the images, and they are then ‘digitally enhanced by my rather clever husband’. You don’t have to be male to make your living from old-fashioned sexism.

Nor do you have to be female to be a target.  As one man reminded me indignantly on Twitter, cards are prone to stereotyping men as ‘fat, incompetent drunks who only like cars and football’.  He’s right, except that the range of things men are meant to like is slightly wider than cars and football–a glance at any ‘for men’ range will also turn up other objects with engines and/or wheels, such as motorbikes, boats and steam trains. The men who populate ‘humorous’ greeting cards are as one-dimensional as the women; and since anything soppy is off limits, there are even more of these joke cards addressed to men. What those cards don’t do, however, is propose to give men ‘a good stuffing’, or ‘shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Jokes about useless male slobs whose wives boss them around are a rather different thing from jokes about women making sandwiches or waiting for a ‘Christmas male’–because it’s male rather than female dominance that’s built into the social and sexual order. In any case, the feminist analysis isn’t ‘insulting women is bad, but insulting men is good’; these are two sides of the same patriarchal coin.

So what other options do we have?  A number of the women who responded to my tweet reported refusing to buy–and instructing their families not to buy for them–the patronizing, pinkified products on offer for birthdays, anniversaries and Mother’s Day; instead they chose more ‘neutral’ cards featuring artworks or animal pictures, with the inside left blank for the sender’s own message. And you can get actual feminist cards if you’re buying for feminist friends. But as some commenters pointed out, these ‘alternative’ products don’t cater for all the needs addressed by the mass market–for instance, one said she’d found it more or less impossible to source a card congratulating someone on the birth of a child that eschewed the usual gender stereotypes (or even came in a colour that wasn’t either pink or blue).

But while there’s some demand for alternatives to the sexist crap you see on the high street, or on Amazon, what I find really depressing is the continuing buoyancy of the market for sexist crap. Even at its most jaw-droppingly offensive (like the ‘can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’ card) this stuff just doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of criticism as sexist adverts, toys and clothes. Some women evidently are voting with their purses, but is it time to actually say we’re Not Buying It? Should we be leaving sarky reviews on Amazon, and stickering offensive examples in card shops the way we used to put ‘this ad degrades women’ stickers on dodgy adverts in tube stations? If women really do purchase most of the greeting cards sold in Britain each year, then we ought to be able to send a message to the industry about the messages it’s sending us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.

 

*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research.