How We Talk: More Important Than What We Talk About?

Stephanie Chen, Op-Ed Editor

We’ve all seen it. Someone expresses an opinion online—and then is promptly shot down because of their wording. They might’ve said, “Proud 2b feminist! #feminism” but instead of their message getting through, their use of a hashtag and “2b” influenced other peoples’ perceptions of their opinion.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of communication has to do not only with what you say, but how you say it. People have known this truth for a long time, but communicating efficiently is a lot more difficult to do than it is said. Establishing a respectable, trustworthy, and intelligent persona is even harder.

I first learned about the phenomenon of “uptalk” when I went to the Fall Journalism Conference at Columbia University this past fall. “Uptalk” is when the speaker changes the inflection of their voice so that it rises at the end instead of dropping. For example, we would usually say “The movie is at 7:30” as a declarative sentence, but uptalk is making that sentence seem like a question when it really isn’t.

The speaker who introduced me to that word was a very confident man who, right from the start, insulted the way we teenagers typically speak. However insulted I felt, I couldn’t deny that what he was saying was true.

We teenagers (and I’m sure older people as well) do use “uptalk”, hesitate, and interject “like” and “um” into our conversations with others. Especially nowadays, as our slang use leaks its way into everyday conversation, we sound shallower and more like quacking ducks than ever. I just have to look at my own reaction at the kids going around school who talk like this:

“Oh my god! And like, then he says, ‘I gave you a 60 because I could tell you seriously spent no effort at all!’ Oh my god, I almost LOL’d, like whatever, I’m gonna graduate this year anyway.”

Hearing this, in my mind, I’ve already placed them in a category. But honestly, who am I to judge? When I don’t pay attention, I probably use “like” and “um” every other sentence as well.

It also seems like the girl was just venting her feelings to her friend—but I discounted what she said just by the way she said it. The impression she left on me was “silly and irrresponsible”, for almost no particular reason at all besides her diction: “Oh my god” twice, internet slang, and “like whatever.”

So what if she had said this instead?

“…And then he says, ‘I gave you a 60 because I could tell you seriously spent no effort at all!’ At this point, I can say ‘I don’t care’ because I’m graduating this year anyways.”

Objectively, I can see that this girl is suffering from senioritis. But I certainly wouldn’t have had the negative impression that I’d gotten from the first scenario. In the first scenario, she came off as more obnoxious; yet the content of her message was exactly the same in both scenarios.

Thus, we can say that using slang and words that add no substance to our conversation such as “like” and “um” lower other peoples’ perceptions of ourselves. We could have, in private, wonderful insights, but when we try to express them, the way we present them overshadows our content.

The next disturbing part of this trend is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. It affects mainly teenagers—and of those teenagers, girls. From personal experience, I can say that when talking with my girl friends, we tend to display these informal speech patterns much more than when I’m talking with my guy friends. Therefore, a girl and a guy can say the exact same persuasive argument—yet the guy will automatically leave a better impression by the words he chose to use.

But why is it that we girls subconsciously choose to use language that makes them seem less confident and less reliable than they really are? Why is it that we subconsciously demean ourselves every time we do this?

Perhaps, it’s because we’re afraid of how others perceive us. Maybe we’re scared of being perceived as something that’s worse than “shallow”, “unintelligent”, and “irresponsible”. I’ll tell you what we’re frightened of: being called arrogant, ambitious, and a curse word that shouldn’t be written out on paper.

Again, I speak from what I hear from my peers in reality as well as what I hear online from fellow teenage girls like me. I speak from what I feel about myself. Our biggest fear when interacting with others is for them to think that we’re not “nice”.

But the problem is, speaking assertively and with confidence shouldn’t indicate that we’re “not nice”. Even today, when women have equal rights (but perhaps not equal pay) as men, we still don’t have equal perceptions of both genders. For example, when a man speaks confidently, he automatically inspires respect in those around him. If a woman does so, she’s much more likely to be labeled as pushy and aggressive.

One issue I’d like to stress is that this double standard isn’t any particular gender’s fault. It’s not the man’s fault that he automatically obtains a better reputation, nor is it the woman’s fault that she often fails to garner respect. Both men and women enforce this double standard rigorously, and yet are not aware of it at the same time.

For example, I was watching TV just a few weeks ago. I monitored my own reactions to everything the characters did. When the mother turned around in the car and gave the kids a look to be quiet, I felt a sharp spike of annoyance. When the father brusquely told the kids to be quiet, I felt slightly annoyed at him but not as much as I did toward the mother. I’m not sure of the science behind why I reacted with less offense taken to him, but I saw one thing: mentally I reinforced the stereotype.

I admit that it scares me slightly that I, who is staunchly feminist, privately am more likely to label a woman as “pushy” rather than a man. If I think like this, how does everyone else think? Will they mock me behind my back when I try to be assertive? Will they openly curse me?

For now, I’ll tell myself not to let others bother me, to take a deep breath whenever I get upset because of them. I’ll remind myself to speak confidently, assertively, and to not be afraid of using my vocabulary. I want to showcase everything I have and not limit what I can do because of other’s perceptions of me.

At the same time, I’ll try to remind my friends, whenever I can, to notice this double standard. I’ll try to tell them to view confidence equally for both men and women; yet I know that such understanding can only come from someone who’s thought about this issue themselves at great length.

This problem is not something we can change right away; but I fervently hope that in the future, people’s perception of female leaders who aren’t afraid to declare what they think will change. I hope that girls in the future don’t trip over middle school and high school like I did, too afraid to speak like their male peers because of fear of not seeming “ladylike”.