We didn't have cell phones when I was in my early teens. If I wanted to call up a friend I had to call their house phone, which inevitably involved first talking to their parents. Not keen on battling through the linguistic minefield of my name, I came up with an alternative opening. "Hi, it's me."
Instantly they knew me. My stutter and the timber of my voice made the introduction for me. "Hi, you" became their standard reply. What started off as a classic word avoidance became something I cherished. I liked being remembered. I took some sense of pride from the fact that the people I loved could recognize me from a few anonymous words. I liked the fact that my voice was as unique as my fingerprints.
"Hi, its me" became wrapped up in my identity as a stutterer. My stutter was me, and vica versa.
I haven't been that "me" for many years (as I grew up caller-ids replaced the need to announce myself to my friends and 'Katherine' became a necessary introduction to the rest of the world), but I thought about that old phrase when I listened to Erin Schick recite her poem, "Honest Speech".
As part of her passionate "spit-slicked" delivery, Erin tells the audience that "my speech is the most honest part of me... this is what I sound like when I speak for myself."
I was instantly attracted to the idea, to the rallying-cry of her words, but there was something about the term "honest speech" that gnawed away at me. If my stutter was the most truthful and sincere part of me then what did it mean to try and change that voice? What did it mean for the hundreds of people I knew who sought out speech therapy to speak more easily?
I thought about it again when I read an article on NPR exploring the ways that various people try to change their deeply ingrained vocal patterns in order to be accepted.
The piece opened with a female litigator whose voice was criticized by a coworker for being "very high." In order to correct this perceived problem, she turned to a speech therapist, Christie Block, to change her high feminine voice into something deeper and more assertive. The litigator explained that some people called her anti-feminist but, for her, it was about finding a way to make her voice more commanding. In the article, Christie explained how she did similar work with transgender clients to help them find a voice that matched their physical appearance and personality.
I didn't believe that any of Christie's clients were being dishonest about their speech. Rather, they seemed to be changing the way they spoke in order to make their voices fall in line with their self-perception and their inner monologues. They were changing their speech to reflect what they saw as their true identity.
So did speaking "dishonestly" mean covering up your true identity? In exploring the relationship between our voice and our individuality, I came across the work of Dr. Alex Baratta and his ongoing study at the University of Manchester into the ways that accent modification changes the way we feel about ourselves. His research shows that many people consciously modify their regional accents, particularly in the workplace, to avoid any "accentism" discrimination. Rather than stemming from any lack of pride in where they come from, they change the way they speak because they are afraid of the ways that others will judge them. The study goes on to show that a third of those who change their accents feel like they are betraying themselves. As Dr. Baratta writes, "[They] see accent modification as synonymous with selling out and a clear threat to their sense of self." For example, a teacher from Lancashire describes feeling "disgusted" at himself for modifying his accent in a job interview.
That frustration is something I have known well, that desire to pass as someone else in order to garner my listener's approval. To say the words I could get out fluently, rather than the words piling up in my head. To speak slowly and deliberately, rather than allowing the eager and spontaneous tumble of words that came naturally. I knew the feeling of acting like somebody else to be accepted, and resenting that facade. As Erin Schick puts it in her poem, I eventually discovered that. "when I stutter I am speaking my own language fluently."
From a biological point of view there is no 'correct' or 'incorrect' way of speaking. With all our accents and stutters and pitches, we are not all programed to sound the same. We have the right to change our speech and we have the right not to, we can choose what we want from our voices.
At the crux of it, "honest speech" seems to hinge on the idea of speaking for ourselves. Not changing the way that we speak in order to fit a mold that someone else has created for us.
We all have a voice that is ours, and ours alone. It is how we use it that counts.