“I’m Sorry, But May We Discuss Tentative Speech?” was the title of Friday’s episode of Forum on KQED, the branch of National Public Radio in San Francisco. They did, in fact, discuss tentative speech — the perceived phenomenon of women apologizing when they are not at fault to the extent of absurdity and annoyance. However, the episode is couched in a broader conversation pervading American media about how people make everyday assumptions about others based on irrelevant speech-related features like accents, pitches and nonstandard vocabularies. We alienate others, ensuring a lack of interpersonal and intercultural understanding when we judge certain speech patterns to be superior.
When it comes to speech discrimination or habits described as “annoying,” women are often the targets of criticism. Kim Kardashian’s voice is a good reference for two of the most-complained-about habits: vocal fry — a low, crackly voice intonation that occurs when vocal folds are shortened and slack, and up-speak — ending statements with the intonation of a question. The media has widely covered public disapproval of these habits, which critics claim young women popularize among themselves — yet evidence says that men use them, too, and often just as much as women. This hypocrisy points to the bigger problem that occurs when we listen more to the style of each other’s speech than the content: namely, we miss out on others’ ideas and intelligence in favor of reinforcing stereotypes.
Tentative speech has now entered the conversation, fueled by the Amy Schumer sketch, “Sorry,” in which a panel of female scientists fails to talk about their research because they spend more time apologizing for things they did not do. The idea, ostensibly, was to poke fun at the phenomenon that the women would force humility and over-apologize to avoid being called aggressive, as linguist Robin Lakoff said on Forum.
Whether tentative speech is good or bad (not that such a distinction is so obvious), women are still communicating, and what they say is more important than whether or not it is preceded by “I’m sorry.”
The same goes for all other linguistic quirks that people of different backgrounds might use. Voice and speech patterns differ from person to person. Not all women are tentative speakers, and some men are, but importantly, linguistic differences go beyond gender. People have different accents, grow up using different slang and have naturally softer or louder voices. The assumption that there is a “right” way for us all to talk is completely unrealistic.
And yet it persists. There is an elitist prescription for how an American business executive should sound. There is a socially-biased grammar system that is taught in schools exclusively. There is one increasingly standardized American accent, which of course is based on the way highly-educated white people talk. This societal push for uniformity ignores the fact that linguistic diversity exists because people come from different places and backgrounds, not because they have more or less to contribute to a conversation.
The idea that one’s manner of speaking is inferior to another’s can be deflating, even depressing. Inner-city children often do not grow up speaking Standard American English (SAE), according to the research of linguist William Labov. What happens when they get to school and find out that there is a whole other, “correct,” way to speak English? They have to learn it all over again. According to Labov, there are enough differences between SAE and dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that simply handing all United States elementary school students the same assignments and expecting children with varying backgrounds to perform the same hurts many students more than it helps.
Though it has been disproven time and time again, the misconception that dialects of English, like AAVE, are “broken” English still holds fast in society.
In addition, adjusting our hearing to account for different speech is a part of everyday life. In fact, every time we meet a new person, our brains have to automatically accommodate the pattern of their voice, because everyone puts together their vowels, consonants and intonation a little bit differently, according to Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct.” Therefore, parsing people’s accents and vernacular terminology to get to the content of what they want to say is an achievable task.
In fact, scientists say that this kind of mental activity is like jumping jacks for our brains — according to an article in The Guardian, it can help keep them in shape. The article’s main point is that experiencing diversity breaks down our stereotypes and assumptions, forcing our brains to work harder and keeping our mind sharp.
Moving beyond language discrimination is an important step for learning about the people we share our country and our planet with.
To end with a bit of college-speak, “Workouts are hard.” Having to work a little bit harder to adjust to someone’s speech patterns is something that humans instinctively fight by judging some patterns to be superior over others. Women may use tentative speech, or they may not. Someone who grew up in a different neighborhood may have a different slang term for soda. A student may need a little understanding from the teacher about their linguistic background. But when we begin to understand rather than critique each other’s diverse language habits, the benefits are infinite: more collaboration, better education and healthier brains are just a few.
Lena Smith is a senior group language major. She can be reached at email@example.com.