Today I listened to an interview with a woman who is a researcher at a respected Canadian university. The topic was the reporting of terrorist attacks. Her assertion was that words matter – that the words chosen by reporters can define as well as describe the event, and therefore affect public reaction and political response.
She was an intelligent woman and she made strong points. But it was her own use of words that struck me. She frequently used “fillers” -- the umms and uhhhs, those little habitual placeholders we throw in while organizing our thoughts. “Y’know” was a biggie, but the one that really got me was “sort of”. It got me partly because she used it a lot, but more in her particular placement of it.
Each time she made a strong assertion, she preceded the strongest or most definitive word with “sort of”:
“…an act is terrorism if it, sort of, clearly provokes terror and fear…”
“The, sort of, actual risks…we’ve all seen those charts that show the, sort of, actual statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack…”
“…in the, sort of, immediate coverage…”
“The recent shooting was…a typical example of the, sort of, folly of, y’know, hasty and careless reporting…”
How is something done “sort of” clearly? Can statistics be “sort of” actual ?
I want to be clear: I do not mean to ridicule her or diminish her arguments in any way. They were rigorous, observant, well constructed and backed up with good evidence. She was articulate and well educated, clearly an expert in her field. Yet when she spoke, she undermined her status. Her “sort of”s served as apologies for her statements. Ever so subtly – maybe subconsciously – she was ensuring that what she said wouldn’t make her appear too strong, too assertive.
Of course men use fillers when they speak as well, but in my experience they generally place them in between thoughts: “So, y’know, the point I’m making is…” and so on. Once the thought has been formulated in the brain, it’s spoken without being subverted or undermined along the way.
So is this another form of “don’t speak up too much or too often”? “You don’t want to come across as a strident, opinionated harpy”? Do we need another hashtag, #TalkLikeAWoman, to go with #DressLikeAWoman? Because I’m not crazy about #IAmSortOfAStrongConfidentWoman, or #IAmSortOfAnExpertInMyField. When women own it, as they very much and very often do, I want to hear them own it. Full stop.
The famous voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg says, “we have to stand by what we say”. It’s a big thing to do, to commit fully to the words we utter and the ideas carried through them. It’s not always easy. But we are living in adventurous times and, as uncomfortable as it is to put ourselves on the line, our lives may get much more uncomfortable if we don’t.