The Words We Use Matter.

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.



Play Dead


Waking up this morning, it drifted through my mind how Shakespeare liked to have actors play dead. Of course, the actual death toll in the Complete Works is substantial, and people have compiled lists, created pie charts, and performed new plays to illustrate the many ways characters are sliced, diced, pummeled and poisoned.

But there are also characters who only pretend to die, and that event is usually the turning point in the story. There’s Hero in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: she ‘dies’ because of being shamed at the altar, and so that Claudio can feel the grief and loss and regret for his mistaken punishment of her. In ‘A Winter’s Tale’, Hermione is another virtuous woman accused of being false. She too must appear to be dead until her husband truly recognizes her innocence and mourns his loss.

This summer at Bard on the Beach, you will see Juliet pretend to die to avoid marrying Paris. In ‘Pericles’, Marina will be thought to be killed by the evil Dionyza’s henchman, and Thaisa, believed to have died in childbirth, is thrown overboard a ship by Pericles.

Sometimes the audience is in on the secret although the characters are not. The deaths, real or pretended, are always important. Men really die and their ghosts often return to haunt the killer (or an indecisive child). When the women die they don’t haunt anyone. And sometimes they have to pretend to die just so the men can grow up. 

Burned Out On The Fry

Who isn’t talking about vocal fry these days? Google will give you 509,000 responses in .28 seconds and they come from journalists, speech therapists, actors, job coaches, physicians, singers, politicians…

In a Guardian newspaper article, Naomi Wolf called on young women to “give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”: 


A response to that article accused Wolf of “missing the point”. Complaining about vocal fry, says Erin Riley, is just another excuse not to listen to women:


In some ways I agree with both points of view. It seems (anecdotally, at least) that we are often more critical of women’s voices than men’s. Traditional authority figures still, in 2016, try to discount the voices of young women in particular. However, standing up for the right to be heard also means resisting pressure to conform to a popular sound which could damage your voice. I hope that women, especially young women, can be true to themselves -- expressing themselves with authenticity, and saving and cherishing their precious voices. Our voices are the means with which we tell the world who we are.

This debate came up for me again in a recent visit to a Women’s Studies class at Vancouver Island University.

The students expressed differing points of view, and some admitted they had not previously been aware of vocal fry, or had never carefully considered their own voices. By the end of the discussion, they were excited to continue reflecting on these questions, and inspired by the possibility of harnessing the power of their authentic voices in their careers and their personal lives.