When it comes to how we speak, it seems that women can’t win. We are policed for not sounding professional and mature if we use uptalk or vocal fry. If we appear confident in our opinions, we’re being overly aggressive. Each woman decides how to navigate this complex set of expectations for herself. Things become so fraught with meaning that it can come down to analyzing a single word. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends about going back and erasing the word “just” from emails–as in “I just wanted to see if you could…” It’s a constant dance of balancing efficacy and principle. Sometimes couching what you say is the smoothest way to get things done. Sometimes you want to show the world you have a strong opinion and the knowledge to back it up, and if they can’t deal with that it’s their problem.
This topic has been in the spotlight this week as Jennifer Lawrence recounted how people reacted when she shared her opinion in a way similar to how she had seen men do it:
A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.
To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, studies confirm that people respond much more positively to angry men than angry women:
After analyzing the simulation, the researchers found that women’s anger worked against them, while men’s anger served as a “powerful” tool of persuasion. When the holdout was a male who expressed anger, participants significantly doubted their own opinion, even when they were in the majority. But if the holdout was a woman who expressed anger, she actually had less influence over participants — so much so that it was the only scenario in the study in which participants became more confident in their own opinion that opposed that of the woman.
Of course a woman doesn’t even need to be actually angry to be perceived that way, as Lawrence’s anecdote demonstrates. Not being deferential gets rounded up to anger. When women are responding to that dynamic, it can seriously dilute our message. Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post demonstrated this when she rewrote famous quotes in the manner in which people prefer to hear women speak. A few of her examples:
“I came. I saw. I conquered.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all but I definitely have been to those places and was just honored to be a part of it as our team did such a wonderful job of conquering them.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, it really feels to me like we’re all equal, you know? I just feel really strongly on this.”
“I have not yet begun to fight.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, I’m not going to fight you on this.”
“I will be heard.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Sorry to interrupt. No, go on, Dave. Finish what you had to say.”
I don’t think there’s one right answer to how we deal with this. I’ve often found myself frustrated when I see how this conditioning manifests: a young intern on the phone making every sentence sound like a question, a woman starting a sentence with “This is probably a bad idea, but…” I don’t want anyone to have to do that, or to have that tentativeness hold her back. I also understand when someone wants to avoid a fight, or just wants to talk the way she’s used to talking. Though I have to say Lawrence’s conclusion is appealing:
I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard.