Gurus, language scolds and comma queens

Last year I read Cathleen Schine’s novel The Grammarians, the tale of identical twins who share a lifelong passion for words. As babies they develop their own secret 48132246._UY200_language; a few years later their most beloved possession is not a stuffed animal but an edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As adults, however, their paths diverge. The older twin, Laurel, becomes a poet whose work celebrates the riches of the vernacular. The younger one, Daphne, finds fame as ‘the People’s Pedant’, an arch-prescriptivist whose writings become so popular she ends up writing a column for the New York Times.

I found that column hard to believe in. Not just because the story takes place at a time when William Safire, who wrote the Times’s ‘On Language’ column for 30 years, was still alive (he died in 2009 and the column was retired not long after). A fictional world doesn’t have to reproduce every detail of the real one. But I still couldn’t imagine the Times, that august ‘paper of record’, giving the slot it created for Safire to a woman. Safire was the kind of commentator who is often described as a ‘language guru’, meaning a person whose pronouncements on the use and abuse of language carry a particular kind of cultural weight. And when I say ‘a person’, Schine’s novel made me realise, what I actually mean is ‘a man’.

Don’t women write language columns too? The short answer is yes, sometimes. I can only think of one woman who’s done it for a major newspaper (Jan Freeman, who was the Boston Globe’s language columnist for more than a decade), but in today’s more diversified media landscape there are more women producing language commentary of all kinds (including some of the most popular language podcasts). But none of them are like Safire: they’re not seen, and wouldn’t want to be seen, as arbiters of usage or defenders of linguistic standards. Today’s media language commentators, men as well as women, are more interested in explaining than in opining or prescribing. In spirit they’re far closer to Laurel than to Daphne.

But the gurus still flourish in another part of the cultural forest–as purveyors of guidance on the rules of correct usage and the secrets of good prose style. In the anglophone world, the most revered authorities of this type are not only men, they’re also dead, white and upper-class. In Britain they include Henry Fowler (whose Modern 1plainwordsEnglish Usage first appeared in the 1920s), Sir Ernest Gowers (author of Plain Words, originally published in 1948 as a guide for civil servants), and George Orwell, whose rules for good writing in ‘Politics and the English Language’ are still endlessly quoted nearly 75 years on. In the US the list is headed by (William) Strunk and (E.B) White, whose 1959 book The Elements of Style is still held in such high regard by many educated Americans, Time magazine included it on a list of the 100 most influential nonfiction books published since 1923 (the year the magazine was founded). It also appears regularly on the many online lists which direct aspiring authors to ‘the X best books on writing’.

But on those lists the dead have some competition from the living. One popular recommendation is Stephen King’s On Writing; some compilers give a nod to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style; and the most recently-updated lists acknowledge this genre’s newest star, Benjamin Dreyer, whose style-guide Dreyer’s English was published last year. Dreyer, a professional editor whose publicity describes him as ‘one of Twitter’s leading language gurus’, has been hailed as an authority for our times: he’s less patrician, less pedantic and less peremptory than his predecessors. But he too is, of course, a man. It’s hard to think of a woman who has been elevated to this status—whose pronouncements are quoted by the cognoscenti, or whose name has the kind of cachet that would prompt a publisher to commission ‘Jane Doe’s English’.

On the face of it this seems odd, since women are well represented in the professions gurus typically come from (editing, journalism, literary writing and teaching). As editors and teachers they are heavily involved in enforcing stylistic norms, and they may even be the hidden hands directing major corporate enterprises (like the Associated Press stylebook, whose current lead editor is Paula Froke). But few of the women who have made careers in this field have become the public faces of linguistic authority; and even those who have tend to be accorded a different (and lesser) status.

Consider, for instance, Kate L. Turabian (1893-1987), the creator and original author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations. To call this text ‘widely used’ would be an understatement: it has sold over nine million copies (five million of them during its author’s lifetime), and a recent survey of over a million college syllabi found that Turabian was the most frequently assigned female author (ahead of Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf), and the 18th most frequently cited author overall. If these figures are indicators of authority and influence, then Kate Turabian should be up there with Strunk and White. But that doesn’t seem to be quite how she’s remembered.

Turabian’s story is unusual, in that she didn’t come to style-guide writing by any of the 220px-Turabian_A_Manual_for_Writers_Ninth_Editionusual routes. Her formal education ended when she graduated from high school, and when she embarked on what would become her life’s work she was employed as a secretary at the University of Chicago, in the office that dealt with graduate students’ dissertations. Her experience in this role led her, in 1937, to produce a short pamphlet setting out the style rules dissertation writers should follow. She took or adapted these from the Chicago Manual of Style, produced for authors and editors by Chicago University Press. In 1947 the press itself began distributing her guide; over time the text expanded, and it was published in book form in 1955.

By the time Turabian died she was sufficiently well-known to merit obituaries in various newspapers. But some of these tributes seem remarkably condescending. Take this one, which originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Kate L. Turabian was our trusted guide and mentor, the absolute authority, the one who knew all there was to know about the strange world of proper term papers.… Our writing on term papers might be weak, our research haphazard, our insights sophomoric, but, thanks to Kate L. Turabian, our footnotes could always be absolutely flawless.

Turabian is memorialised as the First Lady of the Footnote, an ‘absolute authority’ on the dullest and least important details. It’s clear that the writer is poking fun at his younger self, but is he not also trivialising his subject (who did, undeniably, care about citation, but not to the exclusion of all else)? There’s a whiff here of the old stereotype of the schoolmarm, whose obsession with minutiae symbolizes her limited horizons. The same figure hovers over an appreciation written by a former colleague, who recalls Turabian as ‘a devout Episcopalian, an accomplished cook, an enthusiastic and adventurous traveller and a voracious reader’, and goes on to praise her ‘years of devoted service to the university, trudging in her sturdy oxfords from her apartment on the south side of the Midway to her office on the third floor of the administration building’.

The idea that women specialise in sweating the small stuff did not die with Kate Turabian. Mary Norris, for instance, writes on language for the New Yorker, where she was a copyeditor for many years, under the soubriquet ‘Comma Queen’. This is obviously a joke (self-deprecating wit is also a feature of the pieces themselves, as in this account of a copyeditors’ conference where a highlight was the announcement of some new rules about hyphenation); but it still trades on a stereotype of women like Norris (who has also published on subjects ranging from ancient Greek to mud-wrestling) as Miss Prisses whose main talent is fussing over trifles.

Another woman who has been dubbed ‘the queen of commas’ is Lynne Truss, whose 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves was entirely devoted to the subject of punctuation. What’s striking in her case is the hostile reception she got from heavyweight commentators and reviewers. Even her fellow-prescriptivists criticised what they perceived as her schoolmarmish bossiness (‘Ms Truss’, complains one such reader on Amazon, ‘came across as obsessive and lecturing’), while anti-prescriptivists denounced her as a fundamentalist, a bully and a fascist.

It’s true that Truss is, by her own account, a ‘stickler’; but is she really any more of a stickler, or any more obsessive about it, than any other popular prescriptivist? I can’t help wondering if the anger her book provoked reflected the same resentment of female authority we see in commentary on female politicians, who are also derided as bossy schoolmarms (the word ‘lecturing’ was used repeatedly about Hillary Clinton). Women who claim authority are always liable to be perceived as ‘uppity’ and unlikeable; and that’s a problem for prescriptivists, as it is for aspiring presidents, because laying down the law is what they do.

Some women have managed to avoid the ‘bossy schoolmarm’ trap. ggA good example is Mignon Fogarty, the former science writer and editor behind the ‘Grammar Girl’ brand. What she produces is a fairly traditional kind of content—advice on grammar, spelling, punctuation, commonly misused words, etc.—but it’s packaged in a less traditional way, using a persona, Grammar Girl, whose ponytailed and bespectacled avatar suggests a combination of the cutely girly and the slightly geeky. Grammar Girl’s advice is, in her own words, ‘fun and friendly’: she sounds less like a schoolmarm, and more like a friend or a classmate sharing tips she’s found helpful with her peers. Her selling point, in short, is not authority but approachability.

Approachability is also important to Ellen Jovin, proprietor of the Grammar Table, which22GRAMMARTABLE01-facebookJumbo-v2 she sets up on the streets of New York City so passing strangers can literally approach her. Her advice-giving persona, like Grammar Girl’s, is that of a friendly and non-judgmental peer. ‘I’m not there to make people feel bad’, she says. ‘I don’t like thinking, “Oh, you don’t know this thing, and that marks you as uneducated”‘.

But not all women are so eager to downplay their authority. The fictional Daphne seems to revel in hers: ‘I’m a language scold’, she announces, ‘and I like it’. ‘Scold’, of course, is not an entirely gender-neutral word (there used to be a bridle for that), but the kind of ‘scolding’ she’s talking about has a long history of being done by men. In modern times it’s been the particular province of right-wing curmudgeons like Kingsley Amis and John Humphrys. And recently a woman–the novelist Lionel Shriver–has placed herself squarely in that tradition. Last August she published a classic curmudgeonly piece in Harper’s complaining about what she referred to as ‘semantic drift’ (aka ‘people not using words properly’), and she has since followed up with a hatchet-job on ‘lefty lingo’. If the timing fit better I’d suspect that Daphne was modelled on her.

But surely, I hear you cry, you’re not defending Lionel Shriver’s reactionary bullshit, or Lynne Truss’s ‘zero tolerance’ for misplaced apostrophes? Well, no: I’m not a fan of either. I’m also not a fan of Orwell, Strunk and White, or in fact any of the gurus, living or dead. But another thing I’m not a fan of is double standards. Whatever you think of the enterprise itself, there’s no good reason why the women who engage in it should be treated any differently from the men. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse–no bossier, no more snobbish and no more obsessed with trivia. They deserve parity of esteem, and (if we feel that way) parity of abuse.

Bullshit: the struggle goes on

When it comes to the way she speaks, a woman’s place is in the wrong. It’s a point I’ve made frequently on this blog, and last week brought a reminder of how true it continues to be. On the same day I published a post inspired by criticisms of Greta Thunberg’s ‘strident’ speech to the UN Climate Action summit (‘strident’ being a code-word for women who express their views in an ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful way’), the Times Education Supplement published a piece complaining that women don’t speak forcefully enough. It started like this:

“I’m sorry, I’m no expert on this but could we possibly…”

Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?

I certainly have and I cringe to think how I must have come across.

Such phrases can make women appear weak or ineffective to colleagues, which in turn may affect whether they are promoted or tapped on the shoulder for forthcoming opportunities. These phrases are also in stark contrast to the way some men big themselves up.

And such linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This piece is an excellent example of the generic formula I laid out in a 2015 post called ‘How to write a bullshit article about women’s language‘. When I first saw it, I thought: ‘you’ve already dealt with that, let it go’. But then I thought: if the bullshit-merchants have no shame about repeating themselves, their critics shouldn’t either. It’s a bit like the battle to contain infectious diseases: even if you’ve been immunized in the past, you may still need an occasional booster shot. So, here’s a reminder of what makes this article, and others like it, such pernicious nonsense.

Problem 1: do women really talk like that?

‘Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?’ is what my O level Latin teacher used to call ‘a question expecting the answer yes’. But is ‘yes’ the true answer? Do women-in-general really spend their working lives saying things like ‘sorry, I’m no expert, but could we possibly…’?

I ask because the example is clearly invented. It hasn’t been taken from a real-life workplace interaction, it’s been constructed by someone who’s trying to shoehorn the Big Three female deadly sins (apologising, self-deprecation, hedging) into a single utterance. It isn’t, in short, evidence of anything, except our willingness to believe a certain story about the way women habitually talk.

If you’re thinking the evidence will be presented later on, I’m sorry (sic) to have to disappoint you: all we get is an anecdote about a nameless woman-in-a-meeting who allegedly uttered the word ‘sorry’ 32 times in an hour. Even if this is a true story, a single individual is not a representative sample from which to draw general conclusions about half of humanity. And if you feel you recognise yourself or your co-workers in anecdotes like this, remember that your personal intuitions aren’t reliable evidence either—not least because they’ve probably been influenced by reading dozens of pieces just like this one.

Problem 2: do the ways of speaking the writer criticises mean what she claims? 

The people who write these articles take the meaning of the various expressions they castigate women for using to be both obvious and invariant. ‘Sorry’ means you’re putting yourself in the wrong; hedges like ‘could we possibly’ and ‘just’ mean you have no confidence in your own opinion; ‘I’m no expert’ means you’re disclaiming any authority to pronounce on the issue at hand. No wonder, taken together, they make women sound ‘weak and ineffective’!

But this is a massive oversimplification: in reality, the same linguistic form can have several different communicative functions. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ are good examples. ‘Just’ can be used for emphasis, as in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’; the existence of the phrase ‘sorry not sorry’ shows that ordinary speakers understand the potential for ‘sorry’ to be used in thoroughly unapologetic ways (like the snarky way I used it myself earlier on).

The prefatory formula ‘I’m not an expert’ is a similar case. A search for examples on Twitter confirmed that it’s not always used in a genuinely self-deprecating way, to mean ‘ignore me, I don’t know what I’m talking about’. On the contrary, its most common function seems to be (a) suggesting that some previously expressed view is mistaken, and (b) marking the speaker’s own view as obvious common sense. For instance:

I’m no expert in these things but I don’t think people who send death threats tend to write them by hand on monogrammed notepaper

I’m no legal expert but I don’t think Rudy Giuliani is helping his client by going on TV, sweating profusely and voice cracking, saying that he was working on behalf of the State Dept when he pressed Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m no expert, but I don’t think removing UK nationality from UK citizens overseas was on the ballot

Used in this way, ‘I’m no expert, but…’ does not downgrade the speaker’s claim to knowledge; rather it implies that the speaker knows better than whoever came up with the claim she’s ‘politely’ (i.e., sarcastically) contradicting.

Of course, there are cases where speakers do want to emphasise their lack of certainty. In the tweets I looked at, they tended to do that by using ‘I’m no expert’, or some variation on it, not as a preface to an assertion, but in a disclaimer following it. There’s an example in the tweet reproduced below, which was accompanied by a photo of an insect:

X found this beauty under our front porch table. My guide suggests Capnodis, a buprestid (jewel beetle). (But I’m no expert, that might be complete nonsense!)

So, what ‘I’m no expert’ communicates can vary, and one clue (though the pattern isn’t totally consistent) is its position in the utterance. As a preface, especially when followed by ‘but I don’t think…’, it’s unlikely to be heard as self-deprecating and ‘weak’.

Problem 3: if ‘research’ is cited, has it been represented accurately?

At this point you might be thinking: OK, but most people don’t subject everything anyone says to a deep linguistic analysis. They go by first impressions, and according to the TES writer there’s evidence that this works against women:

…linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This sentence invites readers to infer that research has shown a causal relationship between the propositions on either side of the colon. It implies that women’s ‘linguistic differences’ from men are the basis on which they are judged to be ‘indecisive, inept and panicky’. But if you click on the link the writer provides and read the text it takes you to, you soon discover that the research she’s citing does not show, or claim to show, any such thing.

What you get if you click the link is a piece published in the Harvard Business Review, summarising a study in which researchers compared the words that were used about male and female leaders in a sample of more than 80,000 military performance evaluations. Although men and women scored similarly on various ‘objective’ measures of performance, these more subjective assessments of their strengths and weaknesses showed striking differences, as displayed in the graphic below:

W180511_SMITH_MANAGERSUSE-850x576

This study belongs to a growing body of work which seeks to uncover covert biases in organisations’ hiring, promotion and funding decisions by looking for sex-differentiated and/or gender-stereotyped patterns of word-choice in (for instance) job advertisements, performance evaluations and grant proposals. The existence and potential significance of this kind of bias is not in doubt; but what does it have to do with women’s alleged use of a ‘weak and ineffective’ speech-style?

The answer is, ‘nothing, so far as we can tell’. Apart from being about language, the claims made by these researchers are entirely unrelated to the contention that women’s style of speaking has a tangible impact on the way others perceive them. As is often the case in bullshit articles about women’s language, the allusion to what ‘researchers have found’ is just window-dressing: at best it’s irrelevant, and at worst it’s downright misleading.

Problem 4: is the writer proposing a workable solution to whatever she’s identified as a problem?  

Articles about women’s language are big on avoidance, and many of the things they tell women to avoid are conventional markers of politeness. The writers seem to think formulas like ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and ‘could we possibly’ are mere fluff: they add nothing of substance and can therefore be dispensed with. But while it’s true they contribute little substantive information, they are crucial to maintaining the interpersonal relationships on which successful communication also depends. Dispensing with them will not make you sound, in the TES writer’s words, ‘courageous and authentic’; more likely it will make you sound uncooperative or even hostile.

This problem becomes evident when you look at the way advice-givers tell women to reformulate utterances containing ‘forbidden’ expressions. In the TES piece, for instance, we get these suggestions:

Change “I would like to…” to “I want to…”
Change “If you get a moment, would you be able to…” to “Can you…”
Change “I know you’re really busy, but…” to “This is urgent.”

So, instead of asking a co-worker for a favour like this:

I know you’re really busy, but I would like to discuss your report with John before tomorrow’s meeting, so if you get a moment, would you be able to make a summary and send me a copy by the end of today?

you should do it like this:

This is urgent. Can you send me a summary of your report by the end of today, because I want to discuss it with John before tomorrow’s meeting.

But from a politeness perspective this is terrible advice. You might be irritated by the obsequious tone of the first email, but you’d surely be infuriated by the brusqueness of the second. Is the writer a human or a robot? If the former, who does s/he think s/he is? And that’s not just my own intuitive judgment. Research done during the heyday of assertiveness training found that if you follow the orthodox recommendations (be direct, don’t hedge, don’t apologise or explain yourself, stick to talking about your own needs and feelings), most English-speakers will think you’re weird, rude and obnoxious.

If you’re a woman, following this kind of advice has an additional cost: you may well find that you’ve just exchanged one stereotypically negative judgment–that you’re ‘weak and ineffective’–for another–that you’re ‘aggressive, shrill and strident’. These two judgments may look like polar opposites, but at a deeper level they’re two sides of the same coin. The logic they follow is one in which (1) whatever men are said to do with language is axiomatically preferable to whatever women are said to do with it, but at the same time (2) any woman who doesn’t behave according to stereotype will be negatively judged for her ‘deviance’.

This is what I mean by ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’. Whatever women do with language is always either too little or too much: too passive or too aggressive, too self-effacing or too domineering, too feminine or not feminine enough. The overall effect is to render women’s speech, whatever it may consist of, less legitimate than men’s. And it’s not just about delegitimising women’s speech: criticisms of women’s language function as post-hoc justifications for sexism more generally.  ‘I can’t vote for her because of her shrill voice’/ ‘we didn’t promote her because she’s always apologising’…these are just coded ways of saying that you don’t think women are up to the job. They’re used to rationalise prejudices the critic already holds, and defend decisions which were really made for other, even less defensible reasons.

Articles like the one in the TES help to justify this kind of sexism by suggesting that it’s a rational response to women’s own linguistic inadequacies. If you don’t talk like a boss, you can’t expect to be treated like one. But what that doesn’t explain is the treatment meted out to women who do sound like bosses. Those women, the Hillary Clintons and Greta Thunbergs, are no less harshly judged: they just get accused of a different set of female deadly sins.

The conclusion I draw is that the advice-givers are reasoning backwards. It isn’t women’s speech that causes prejudice against them, it’s prejudice that leads to the devaluation of their speech. Instead of fighting our own alleged bad habits, we should put our energies into fighting prejudice against women speakers. Because that’s the root of the problem: everything else is just bullshit.

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.

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.

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. 

The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.