Words as an Instrument in Female Narrative
‘Discourse is the site at which emancipation can be fought for, and the means with which such a fight can be fought for’.
Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (1976)
As an English Language graduate, I am particularly fascinated by communication to begin with, as a female I am acutely aware of how the language we use shapes our narratives. In a society where female stories and experiences are becoming increasingly visible, Habermas’ second claim is worth considering. The words we choose are an instrument in themselves and one which influences the way in which our voices are heard.
Whether consciously or not, the language we use to speak and write projects a particular image of ourselves. Accents can convey national or regional identities while using certain phrases might demonstrate a belonging to particular social groups. In the same way, some differences distinguish between the sexes like a male voice being of a lower pitch than a females’, on average. It might be a chicken-or-egg question as to whether it’s the lower pitch or being male that is associated with greater power but certainly it was this kind of thinking that lead to Margaret Thatcher reportedly taking pitch-lowering voice lessons in the 1970s as her political profile rose. Despite this, features like pitch tend to be beyond our conscious control and anyway, the point should not be to simply sound more like men.
What is more easily manageable - and what we should pay attention to - are the words that we use to craft our stories. This is particularly worthy of consideration because the evidence shows there are systematic differences in the way males and females use language. ‘Hedging’ can be explained as a linguistic strategy where modifiers (such as I think… or maybe) are used to prevent sounding too authoritative or direct. It has been suggested (Murphy, 2010) that women use hedging to be sensitive towards their listener or encourage co-operation, but this can be misinterpreted as linguistic insecurity, especially as men use hedging in a more limited way - to express uncertainty. Such speech differences between males and females are not the issue themselves and there’s no need to eradicate them for the sake of it. Rather we should make sure that they do not put women at a disadvantage.
Of course, it is a good thing to speak with an awareness of your audience - as female hedging suggests - since effective discourse requires a two-way relationship between speaker and listener. The problem for female speech comes when consideration for others compromises consideration for ourselves and our words are framed to apologise for taking up space to begin with. Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special Nanette touches on this when she admits that her previous jokes have relied on putting herself down. She asks:
"Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It's not humility, it's humiliation…I put myself down in order to speak, in order to request permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself and not to anyone who identifies with me.”
By speaking on your own Netflix special or in a business meeting or, actually, in any possible situation you are uniquely qualified to do so simply by having an idea that you want to share. There shouldn’t be any pressure to downplay your authority to seem non-threatening and justify being heard in the first place.
Hannah also draws attention to the collective impact of our words, that the way we speak sets the tone for others who wish to add to the conversation. Myxogyny’s own mission is to increase the weight of female narratives and we can see this happening in everyday life too. There is an increasing confidence in the topics which are being broached and as this happens it is worth matching with confidence in the words we use to express them. Female-led discourse has the power to shape our reality by providing nuanced perspectives and making important issues heard. Recognising that our words are an instrument in making this happen and choosing them intentionally will have a big impact in the force of the message.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1976. Legitimation Crisis. London: Heinemann Educational.
Murphy, Bróna. 2010. Corpus and Sociolinguistics: Investigating Age and Gender in Female Talk. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.