Episode 76: Communicating While Female

I have decided that rather than changing myself to be taken more seriously, I would rather just stay who I am and make people take people like me more seriously.
— Jessie Char
Our true selves don’t show when we’re in more anxiety ridden situations...Why do we think we should be born an amazing communicator? We’re not.
— Ita Olsen

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time – women and communication. Women are often criticized for the sound of their voice, the language they use, they way they apologize – and some of them are saying ‘enough.’

“I think that I have decided that rather than changing myself to be taken more seriously I would rather just stay who I am and make people take people like me more seriously.”

But not everyone applauds that decision….

“Instead of battling against it and saying this is who I am…this isn’t who you are. You weren’t born using upspeak, you weren’t born undermining yourself. These are habits we’ve developed over time.”

Habits she says we can un-learn.

Coming up, women’s voices and communication styles play into a perception problem…but whose problem is it?

I live in the US and over the past couple of years or so women’s voices have got a lot of attention. And not in a good way. There’s been a lot written about the tendency to use upspeak – that’s when you have a rising intonation at the end of a sentence. And then there’s vocal fry, when your voice gets a bit creaky at the end. Even though men certainly use upspeak – and probably vocal fry – we don’t hear nearly as much about their communication issues.

Jessie Char knows all about this. She works in tech in San Francisco. She gave a talk last year at an industry conference and during the talk she spoke about how she, a young woman, is perceived in part because of the way she sounds.

AM-T: “When did you first realize that some people had an issue with your voice, your speaking voice?”

“I used to be on a podcast called Let's Make Mistakes on Mule Radio with Mike Monteiro and I had really -- after I've been on it for like a year, I hadn't looked at any of the iTunes reviews. And I was thinking like oh, like people on Twitter seem to really like this podcast. You know I was starting to meet people in the real world that actually had recognized me from my voice, like being in an elevator, and somebody being like oh, are you Jessie Char? And I was thinking like, I'm pretty cool. And then I went and I finally did the iTunes reviews and there weren't like a ton of comments, but the only comments about me were about how dumb I sounded. And how annoying my voice was -- somebody said it was like nails on a chalkboard, that was actually the title of their review. ‘Nails on a chalkboard.’ And how some people would fast forward through the parts where I spoke, so they could avoid listening to me.”

AM-T: “I mean that’s pretty – it’s galling, it’s gutting actually to see that kind of feedback about something that’s so personal, it’s part of your identity.”

“Yeah, and it’s not a thing I can change or work on – I mean you know I could technically get a vocal coach and speak in a lower register. But it is me, it’s not a thing I can really work on.”

Jessie’s part of a larger group of women who feel the same way – and they are getting fed up of being criticized for how they speak.

AM-T: “My background is in public radio and women public radio reporters get so much blowback about their voices…and it’s become a topic of conversation in the past couple of years. Because listeners of both sexes write in and they’re really mean about these women’s voices. They’re probably mostly young women… but it’s the kind of feedback that men rarely get. And some of these women are saying I’m female so of course my voice is higher, and b) who are you to tell me how to sound?”

“Yeah, and those conversations about the public radio voices were kind of what awakened my realization that it wasn't just me, and it wasn't about me, it was a part of a larger, I say unfair criticism of women's voices, and it was…Over the last ten years for me as I’ve transitioned into adulthood I think I have just had this gradual awakening of what sexism really is and what it means to me and how it impacts me in a very real and very consistent way. You know there were times when I was younger when you know, like I wear a lot of dresses, I'm a very girly person, in my talk I wore a pink dress. Very intentionally. Because you know, at at lot of tech conferences you see a lot of gray hoodies. And I used to get criticisms like, maybe you should dress a little bit less girly, so that people take you more seriously. And you know that was a thing that I originally also took a little bit personally and like yeah, I maybe am dressing incorrectly for what I want to be perceived as. But just over time I just started realizing more and more that it's not me, and it really isn't just about the way that I dress…”

Or the way she speaks. She says it’s about other people’s inability to see her as fine the way she is. She doesn’t want to change herself to meet some societal expectation for a professional woman.

“I think that I have decided that rather than changing myself to be taken more seriously I would rather just stay who I am and make people take people like me more seriously. Which I hope is a shift that can happen.”

I wonder how long that shift will take. Part of the reason I’m doing this show is that a lot of us work for large companies and they see professionalism as looking and sounding the part.  

I was a guest on the My Crazy Office podcast at the end of last year. An HR person for a law firm wrote in to the show. They admitted they were passing over young – mostly female – lawyers for jobs because they sounded unprofessional with all their upspeak and vocal fry. Then a female engineer wrote in furious that she hadn’t got a promotion – it had gone to a less experienced guy. She’d found out her boss thought she sounded like a Kardashian. He didn’t see her as smart enough to get the job.

Teo Cristea is an actor. She lives in LA and I spoke to her because she has used a voice coach. She wanted to reduce her foreign accent to land better parts. She’s Romanian but she moved to Canada aged 12 and then to the US as an adult. She’s learned how to speak from further back in her mouth and drop the hard consonants of her native country, so when she needs to she can sound completely American.

“The best feelings actually was…I went out for a role that required a foreign accent. I went in speaking perfect American in case I didn’t get the role, I wanted them to know that I could do more than just the foreigner. And the casting director was so worried she felt the need to remind me that this was an audition for a foreign girl and could I do the accent that was required?”

That was huge for her. Her coach helped her with her upspeak too. Like most of us, she didn’t even realize she was doing it.

“I think it’s a result of not being confident about a topic you’re discussing or a situation that you’re in – or not being comfortable exerting that confidence.”

She found nixing the upspeak changed the way people saw her.

“It was a nice confidence boost and people listened to me differently. If someone notices you questioning yourself then they will question you as well.”

But she does think women get unfairly penalized for this…

“I don’t think it is an issue that is limited only to women. I think looking at it that way is actually pretty cruel because it puts women in this little corner saying you are all these negative things…and then to the men who exhibit these symptoms, this coping mechanism or whatever makes them speak this way, it’s sort of ignoring the fact they also have an issue.”

Like upspeak, using a lot of qualifying words in speech or emails is another thing that can make you seem uncertain. Maybe you’ve heard about the new Gmail plug-in that draws your attention to justs and ‘I thinks’ and ‘sorry’s  in your emails – they’re all seen as words that undermine your message.

Jessie Char does pay attention to this stuff.

“I've done a lot of work on my e-mails because you know certain e-mails you want to make sure are very, very clear. And I think that it does help in some cases to look through and see how many justs or maybes or possiblys you have in there and maybe take some of them out, just to strengthen the message. But at the same time I also prefer communicating in a slightly softer tone. Now whether that's a product of you know not wanting to be perceived as too harsh because I'm a woman, because it's so impossible to decouple what is really coming from me versus what is the product of all of the outside influence I get. It's hard to determine that, but I guess, me, as I am with all of my external influences, I do like to soften my emails. Just a little bit and. I don't find that I get negative results out of that, at least at least not that I am aware of.”

I’m the same way. I keep an eye on my justs, but I generally craft my emails carefully. They’re less direct than they could be but I’m OK with that.  And if I’m writing to another woman, I may leave in a just or two that I’d take out if it were writing to a man.

Apologizing is another dance. Women are being urged to apologize less…but there’s cultural stuff here too. For a lot of women – or Brits or Canadians – there’s something polite about all that apologizing. 

Jessie does say sorry more than she’d like. And she isn’t sure how worried to be about it.

“This could be kind of a product of the whole package of me. Looking the way I do and speaking the way I do and whatever my stature is, I'm very short also. And there are just some times when you know I’ll be in a business meeting and I'll be talking to a group of women and men, or just men, because it's tech and sometimes you just end up in a group like that. And it just looks like the words are going in one ear and out the other. And then I panic and backtrack and am not as confident that they are listening to what I'm saying and so I need to like, mix it up a little bit to get their attention or apologize to get their attention. It's like, not an intentional thing that I do at all, but I know it is a thing that I do and I don't know…Since I haven't experienced being a dude or taller or with a lower voice or like a more pant-suit wearing gal…I don't know how I would be perceived differently and if that would change.”

But she’s not keen to start lowering her voice or wearing a Hillary pant suit because she wants to feel like herself.

We’ll come back to that idea in a minute with a very different point of view.

So I know plenty of women in tech listen to the show and I want to let you know about a conference called Write/Speak/Code – they’re sponsoring the show today. Write/Speak/Code takes place in Chicago in June and it’s all about getting women developers to become speakers, thought leaders, and open source contributors. I did a show called Women in Tech Speak up back in 2013 where I went to the conference and we talked a lot about women’s fear of calling ourselves experts and how to change that.

And if your company would like to sponsor the event the organizers would love to hear from you – all the information is at writespeakcode.com.  

Ita Olsen is a communications coach – she’s the person who worked with Teo Cristea on her accent and her upspeak. I also worked with her several years ago to get rid of my filler words – so things like um, y’know, and like – my radio interviews were full of these and I worked with Ita to rein them in.

Her company is called Convey Clearly. As usual I wanted to know a bit about her past and why she got so interested in communication in the first place.

“I remember in 2nd grade Sister Thomasine was my phonics teacher. I’ve always been interested in it. I’ve always been interested not just in the sounds but the relationships and what communication skills do for you.”

Note those last words – what communication skills do for you. She’s always been focused on the idea of using communication to get what you want. And pretty early on she decided her accent wasn’t going to cut it.

“…at the age of 14 I changed my Long Island accent…

AM-T: “How did you sound?”

“I can hardly do it, but I’ll try [does an example of before and after]

Before I was 14 I thought that’s the way it is, that’s how I sound. But no, it’s not a permanent characteristic of mine, I don’t need to stick with it – God-given Long Island accent. I could have been born anywhere, you know?”

So she changed it.

“I got rid of that accent. It took me a few years. I got it totally out of my speech. And then in my 20s I changed my voice. So I had very high pitch…a higher pitch, oh my gosh, this was me giving a presentation at the age of 21. Two people away from me they’d be saying, ‘Ita, can you speak up? I can’t hear you.’ I was so nervous…I’d have a closed throat…what happens when you have a closed throat is your pitch went really high, I went up at the end. And I was insecure and afraid, and you know what, I’m still insecure, I’m still afraid, but I can’t allow that to interrupt my trajectory of my life. I need to keep going, I need to succeed. So I had to make sure I changed the way I spoke.”

Plenty of people think the same way. Her clients often come to her as they’re moving up at work – they may be managing people, they want to come across as more confident, or just get people to listen to them properly and do what they say. Ita says there’s so much power in the human voice – why wouldn’t you want to use it to your advantage? A lot of the work involves doing throat and tongue relaxation exercises, learning where to take deep breaths, and slowing down.

Ita says it’s the women who are most surprised by the outcome. 

“And a lot of the women that come to me, halfway through the program they’ll say this is too much power, like people are doing exactly what I tell them to do…and they want to tone it down at first and I make sure they really bring it all the way. Because we have a responsibility to do our jobs, and do it fairly well…and if we’re kind of timid and not getting our message out there then we’re not living up to that responsibility, so it’s really important.”

Quite a few clients want to be heard more during meetings.

AM-T: “Is it mostly women who come to you with that request, that desire to be heard in meetings or is it guys as well?”

“It’s both, but I would say it’s more women who talk about the meetings, because they get up there and they’re really being interrupted. And everyone wants to place the blame on the people who are interrupting them, but it’s not really – that’s not really where the problem is. The problem with being interrupted is because you’re using a run-on sentence, you’re not being concise, because you’re using upspeak. These sort of things are actually impacting the way other people are processing your information. They can’t process it to a really precise degree. So no one’s trying to be, I don’t know what people are trying to be, maybe some people are…but people aren’t really trying to be mean and say you’re not worthy, you’re not saying anything we want to hear. It’s that you’re not putting your message out as well as you should. And it’s not something that we’re trained – we have to learn this, we have to go about improving ourselves and training ourselves to be able to communicate in this concise fashion, this persuasive fashion.”

Now manterrupting definitely exists – I hardly need to tell some of you this. Plenty of women have experienced that thing where you’ve barely begun to speak when a male colleague runs right over you.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard or read about women using run-on sentences. In fact I know I do it myself. Again I guess it’s a question of should that be OK, or should we ramblers learn to be concise, to be better understood?

Going back to what Jessie was talking about earlier in the show, I asked Ita if some women come to her because of the quality of their voices…and she said yes.

“People come to me because when they answer the phone people will say can I speak to your mommy, or did I get the right number? Because they have such a high, tight pitch they sound like a child. But just about everyone I work with ends up with a little bit of a lower pitch because the reason why we have this too high pitch – the reason why we do any of these things, upspeak, glottal fry, run-on sentences, really high pitch - is because our throats are really tense. And this is not an abnormal thing. Everybody has tension in their upper bodies and their vocal mechanism. And the more tension in a situation, the more tense we’re going to be. We have to work on eliminating tension from our bodies.”

AM-T: “Mmm, so you mean…but surely there are some of us who because of heredity have naturally quite high voices?”

“You know…

It may be true, but nobody’s really working with their true voice. Nobody. Unless you’ve learned to open up your throat you’re not using your true voice.”

AM-T: “Huh. Am I using my true voice?”

“Ahh! That’s scary.  I think you’re most of the way there.”

AM-T: “Most of the way there?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

And just to flip back for a minute, did you notice what she did after I asked my question about heredity…

AM-T: …have naturally quite high voices?

[pause, then a breath] “you know…”

That pause, that deep breath before she began speaking – she says it’s all part of what makes you a clearer communicator.

Ita doesn’t just work on voices. She looks at communication across the board, including how you come across in writing. 

“And that’s one of the things I work on with my clients. I had this client at a Fortune 500 company, she was so high up she reported to the CEO…and we were role-playing a meeting she was to have the next day. And she said, “Um, this is just an initial raw draft.” Just, initial, raw and draft all mean the same thing! So talk about coming across as afraid and not strong. So we had her saying to her boss, ‘hey boss, here’s my draft, get a look and let me know what you think.’ Within days he stopped micromanaging her. So she learned to use direct, plain, active language with precise breath groups – that means stopping at appropriate phrases. And people started taking her more seriously -- he, the CEO, stopped micromanaging her and he started respecting her for her opinion.

So these slight little changes, instead of battling against it and saying ‘accept me for who I am,’ this isn’t who you are. You weren’t born using upspeak, you weren’t born putting yourself down or undermining yourself. These are habits we’ve developed over time for various reasons.”

And of course those reasons often have to do with playing out our gender the way we’re expected to. I use softer language in emails because subconsciously I know that’s how I’m expected to come across.

As for speaking, Ita says by learning relaxation exercises and a few other techniques you can come across as perfectly feminine if you want to, yet authoritative. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

She doesn’t understand the resistance to changing something that could be hurting you at work – or anywhere else.

“Why don’t people accept us for who I am? Shouldn’t I just be able to sound exactly how I sound – that’s how I sound. But why would we think we shouldn’t get better at communicating? It’s the one single pivotal thing that gets us what we need out of life. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education and when we go into the interview we blow it. And if we didn’t blow it we still didn’t come across as well as we can when we’re sitting chatting with our closest confidantes. Our true selves don’t show when we’re in more anxiety ridden situations. We can hire a tennis pro, we take music lessons, we go to the gym, we improve all aspects of ourselves. Why do we think we should be born an amazing communicator? We’re not.”

Ita Olsen. Thanks to her, Jessie Char and Teo Cristea for being my guests on this show.

Let me know what you think. D’you think it’s caving to a sexist society to change your communication style, or do you think of it as self-improvement?

You can comment at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. And I did another show on communication in 2014 – that one’s called Communication at the Office, it’s episode 46 if you want to look it up.

If you’re in tech don’t forget to check out writespeakcode.com.

Talking of technology please subscribe to the show on iTunes or however you listen to podcasts, you can also do it on the Acast app – I’ve joined a podcast network called Acast along with lots of other great shows. You’ll be hearing more about them in a future show.

And finally, I’m recording my part of this episode on a new fancy recorder I bought with your contributions to the podcast – so thank you.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.