It’s a little bit like trying to unscramble an egg, sorting out what went on when a Huffington Post editor called a Medill professor to check a would-be intern’s references.
Editor Amanda Terkel tweeted that the male professor commented unfavorably on her voice, suggesting that she’s “young and has issues.”
Professor Alec Klein tells the tale a little bit differently. You can check it out in the Daily Northwestern story. He’s apologized for what he says was a misunderstanding.
Whatever went on between the two of them, another Huffington Post editor, Emma Gray, jumped into the fray with an article demanding that we Stop Policing Women’s Voices.
Gray complains that “women regularly hear unsolicited opinions about their voices.” That’s probably true. Women regularly hear unsolicited opinions about their clothing, body shape and hairstyles too. Some of those opinions are ridiculous. And some are worth paying attention to.
I’m not the Voice Police. Really. But I do have strong feelings about this.
I certainly don’t think women are supposed to sound like men; most of us couldn’t if we wanted to, and why would we want to, anyway? It is very useful, though, if you want to be taken seriously, to sound like a full-grown adult woman. And not like a seventh-grader.
When we pad our speech with fillers like, well, like like. When we say, “I’m sorry” thirteen times in a conversation. When we end every sentence as if it’s a question? … we invite people to dismiss our contribution to a conversation.
The unfairness of it offends these young women at Huffington Post.
“What she says,” according to Emma Gray, “should always be more important than the pitch at which she says it.”
But it isn’t.
In truth, how we say things has huge impact on what people hear. They take us seriously – or they don’t. They believe us – or they don’t. They like us – or they don’t. Based largely on how we look and sound.
That’s true for women. And it’s true for men as well.
Communication coaches have, for years, been citing research by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA. And a lot of them have been mis-citing Mehrabian. But his work applies here, so I’m going to take a crack at it.
You’ve probably run across the notion that 7% of communication is verbal, 38% is vocal, and 55% is physical.
Turns out that’s not exactly what Mehrabian said. He was specifically studying how pairs of people communicate feelings and attitudes.
Of course, we get information across with the words. A smile, a pause or gesture alone won’t do the trick.
But our feelings about the information do come out in our tone of voice and body language. And we influence the listener’s feelings that way too.
When you’re selling your work, leading a team or talking to just about anyone about just about anything, the feelings matter. Because people make decisions based on emotion and then justify them with logic, you want to have an emotional impact. And that’s where the words by themselves fall short.
Turns out what she says is not more important than the pitch at which she says it. Or the tone of her voice. Or whether it sounds like a statement or a question.
It’s easy enough to drop some adolescent speech habits. Why cling to them and turn them into a badge of honor and insist that the business world learn to like them?
You may be deeply offended by criticism of teen-talk in the world of work. Or maybe you think that Northwestern guy is right in making assumptions based on a woman’s voice. Comment below to give voice – or at least print – to your thoughts. And feelings.
PS. I’ve had some experience with assumptions based on my voice. People used to tell me I sounded blonde.
Not long ago a friend introduced me to her colleague. Who could not have looked more shocked as she said, “But, but, but … you’re white!”
Ah, a keen grasp of the obvious. Turns out she’d listened to me on the radio for years, and was absolutely certain that I was African-American.
And then there was that guy I met once, who told me how disappointed he was. Because he always thought I’d sounded pretty.