Is criticising speaking styles discrimination?

Yesterday I was alerted to an article accusing those of criticising female speaking styles as being discriminatory. “We have the right to speak as we like; stop being sexist” was the message.

This writer’s argument was that women were being criticised for the ‘vocal fry’; ‘upspeak’ and ‘Well, like,’ styles of speaking. She broadcasts a podcast that has received derogatory criticism. She felt women were being targeted and should just get on with speaking without worrying about their style of speaking. Her arguments were weak; very weak.

After getting over the shock of her gossamer article, I looked at the comments – of which there were MANY; all agreeing with my opinion that giving feedback on they way you speak isn’t discriminating against women.

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Until relatively recently, women were hardly heard at all; I remember the first woman newsreader – but it caused a lot of scandal; women weren’t heard in the church – the first women were ordained as curates on 12th March 1994, and women’s opinions were largely overlooked. Now broadcasting companies are trying to include more female experts to redress the balance; partly because there really ARE many women experts who aren’t being heard.

For a small minority of men – and I would put TRUMP in that category, they are threatened by ANY woman having ANY opinion or authority. They are the sad people who hide behind a pseudonym and a computer screen. Unfortunately those small number of people DO post nasty criticism. But as adults, we have to be perceptive in recognising and disregarding these comments as opposed to constructive feedback that could help us be even better communicators.

Comments about the way people speak isn’t exclusively directed at females. Men criticise (and mimic) other men; as a result, some seek help; others lose their confidence. Criticism can be related to tone of voice, accent, ethnicity (yes) and even pitch. Criticism and teasing can be quite brutal. A number of my clients were told 20 or 30 years ago to “Get rid of your accent or you won’t progress in this company”. My headmistress wrote on my testimonial “Susan has clear, well enunciated speech and a beautiful speaking voice”. Clearly she felt this was an important skill for a future employer.

 A pupil my father taught had a high pitched voice. He was teased relentlessly and brutally and even entered a very male environment where I have no doubt this continued. He is now a public figure – still with a high pitched voice – yet he has developed a speaking style and charisma, where you hardly notice the pitch of his voice. He didn’t complain about discrimination but worked on this skill.

A recent client of mine, who speaks English as a Second Language, realised that her hopes for promotion at a senior level were being hampered by her delivery and presentation styles in meetings with clients. The more senior position would require her to present at conferences and feedback revealed clients found it difficult to understand and engage with her. Rather than shouting “Discrimination!” she started work with me to develop a clearer speaking style. She has now been promoted. But the interesting point is that one of her colleagues was also given the same feedback; he had a strong North West accent – yet he complained that he was “being picked on” and was in denial rather than addressing the problem.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: there are some people who DO have annoying speaking habits. Many people get annoyed or irritated by ‘Vocal Fry‘ and ‘Upspeak’; these aren’t natural speak patterns but mannerisms and it is men as well as women who speak like this (Bradley Cooper seems to speak in constant Vocal Fry in ‘Joy’ the movie). It is also really irritating when someone speaks as though they are auditioning for the latest reality show, complete with arm gestures and “It’s all about me” attitude. If that person is in a meeting where there is limited time, it is going to annoy people. If every comment you make to your boss includes lots of words like “Just”, “Sorry”, “only” etc not only is it going to take more time speaking to a busy person, but you are devaluing your status with the language you use.

There is a time for speaking like a Kardashian or a football supporter – when you are with your tribe. However, at work, there are certain styles  that are acceptable: including speaking clearly and trying to eliminate irritating mannerisms, in the same way that you wear particular clothing for work. So let’s get professional rather than whinging that criticising speaking styles is discrimination.

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The post Is criticising speaking styles discrimination? appeared first on The Executive Voice Speaking Coach.

About the author

Susan Heaton Wright is a former opera singer who works with successful individuals and teams to make an impact with their voices and physical presence. Using her experience in using the voice and performing on stage, she works with people to improve their performances in a range of business situations; from meeting skills and on the telephone, to public speaking, presentations and appearing on the media.

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