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What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking

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One time I met a guy at a coffee shop, a place as good as any to meet your soul mate. Things were going well -- I was making a lot of deliberate eye contact and all that -- when he stopped the conversation to tell me that he thought I could do voice-over work. "Like the woman who plays Bart on The Simpsons," he said. "You could be the voice of an eight-year-old boy." And then he winked and cut in front of me in line.

This wasn't the first time I'd been so casually dismissed or judged because of the way I speak. When I was a third grader in Mrs. Chandler's class, the school's speech therapist came to see me. He told me there was a way of speaking so I could be understood and welcomed into the community of the speaking. He said I might be better liked if I started to pronounce hard R's and soft L's and if maybe I considered brushing my hair from time to time. Because I was young and eager to be liked, I listened to him when he told me that my unique lilt -- what he called an impediment-- was a problem that could be fixed by recitation and slow-talking.

And so, in just a few months time, his voodoo magic and sorcery worked: I spoke "normally," and just like everyone else.

So maybe this article in the New York Times a few months ago escaped your attention, but it didn't elude mine. The Times noted that a current linguistic trend called "vocal fry" is just one in a long line of largely female speech patterns that are seen often seen as a sign of stupidity. Teens and young women who used vocal fry were being dismissed as insecure, naive, and dumb.

Who were these girls? What did they sound like that had made them so reviled and looked down upon? What was vocal fry? Did I make vocal fry? I did some obligatory research at the local library, because I don't have wireless access at home:

"...the lowest vocal register and is produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency..."
-- Wikipedia

That didn't sound like me. I don't rattle. Or do I? The more I read and watched and listened, and called in to NPR to ask, the more I began to recognize a bit of Ke$ha in myself.

All of my Internet research brought me to a worrying conclusion. Was I undermining all my professional hopes and dreams by speaking this way? Is this why I was newly 24 and still had no 401K? Why when I told people about my ambitions they gave me a look as if to say, "Not in my backyard!"

In my quest to become the first female commissioner of the NBA, I always thought it was best to be and sound like myself. What a stupid assumption, Ilana, as I think to myself now, and bang my head on the steering wheel as I roll through a four way stop, like one of those crazy woman drivers I've been trying my best not to become.

Is this the way it's always going to be, Hillary? Here, I thought looks were all that mattered for women in the world, but it turns out all the time I spend thinking about my bangs, I should have been thinking about the character of my speech patterns.

But then it occurred to me how unfair it seemed that women were taking all this heat for their vocal registers, when men can sound just as unintelligent. Maybe they don't fry, but they say all kinds of dumb things, with their "dudes" and their "bros" and their "sup, playas" and their "I'm not looking for anything serious right nows."

Besides, real social scientists at the news-magazine channel CNBC think vocal fry is simply a feminine way of communicating authority. It's no sign of stupidity at all, but a crude awareness of social cues!

A low register, a croak, a stutter, isn't a reason to find young women intellectually inferior. It's just a faulty justification for thinking so. And I don't have time to entertain such sexist flights of fancy. I'm too busy changing the world, and excelling, and forgetting to pick up my dry cleaning.