office hours

Should Women Change the Way They Talk in the Workplace?

As if.
As if. Photo: Paramount Pictures

When Lynda Spillane speaks, she looks you straight in the eye. Not in an intimidating or threatening way, just with a deliberate focus. And when you speak, she waits for you to finish. She sits upright in her seat without shifting or shuffling. When you are finished, she pauses before responding. The pauses feel unusually long. She’s thinking of what to say and making sure she means it.

“The challenge for young women these days,” she says [pause] “is to decide what the source of your power is going to be when you interact with others.” What does Spillane know about the subject? It’s her job as a speech coach — one who has worked with Margaret Thatcher and a number of other political leaders and executives — to bring out that source of their power, wherever it may be hiding. “When you go into a boardroom, you have to have power. You have to have authority. If I’m looking people straight in the eye,” she says. [Pause.] “I’m using relatively short sentences. I’ve turned my voice up. [Pause.] Then I’ve got power.”

Spillane argues that young women need to exhibit more confidence. And if altering our voices to speak more authoritatively, trimming out the “likes,” smoothing our vocal fry gives us more confidence? If it allows us to communicate better with people who are predetermined to judge us? If we turn down the upspeak to convince others of our certainty? Well, why wouldn’t we do it?

The never-ending debate about whether we should be policing women’s speech patterns, Spillane says, is holding women themselves back from breaking through into bigger roles, higher pay, a more equal playing field in the work world. Choosing to opt out of the patriarchy doesn’t make it disappear, after all, and prejudiced men in power are not all of a sudden going to change their opinions on our voices just because we’ve asked. “Women need to wake up,” she tells me within the first few minutes of our meeting together.

Spillane’s generation grew up in an era when there were far fewer women in the workplace, and she sees inherent power in not just leaning in, so to speak, but standing up. “Young women are fighting so hard to have their voice and have their authenticity and to not be bossed around by people who are saying, ‘You’ve got to look a certain way or you’ve got to act a certain way.’ [Pause.] But I think they’ve got to be awfully careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Her coaching comes in a few different forms: workshops, one-on-one sessions, vocal training, and speech writing. When she meets individually with clients, she says she first identifies their overall goal: often it is learning how to more confidently communicate with people (i.e. men) who don’t take them seriously. In her voice coaching, she encourages her clients to speak more slowly and deliberately, louder, and in shorter phrases. She doesn’t tell clients, “You’ve got a bad voice” — those steps are enough to completely change the way they are received. When Spillane coaches me, she says I need to learn to avoid reaching the end of a breath while I’m still speaking — instead, she says, I should pause and breathe in between thoughts.

Dr. Tasha Eurich, a professional leadership expert who has been a client of Spillane’s for several years, says modifying her speech has had a profound impact on the way she spends her time: “I worry less about being liked and I focus more on being competent.” This is the crux of the argument for many pro-speech-adjustment advocates: When we’re not concerned about how people will react to superficial traits like our voices, we have more time to tackle the bigger issues. If a woman is trying to speak her mind about poor work culture or reproductive rights in America, wouldn’t she do everything she can to actually be heard?

When Spillane says, “Show me a woman around the world who is considered a great leader but who is not a fantastic communicator,” I think of the critiques lodged against Hillary Clinton on this very issue: that she’s too aggressive, not warm enough, not friendly or apologetic. Research has shown that women who display these stereotypically male characteristics are penalized for it in the workplace. So if women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why don’t we just say screw the critics and speak however we want?

After all, you never read trend pieces asking why men can’t change their “bro-cal fry” or endless rambling in order to communicate better. In a segment on NPR last July, Lenny editor Jessica Grose pointed out that women are held to a much higher standard than men — in all areas of life but specifically in speech. If these men can’t deign to hear a woman just because of the timbre of her voice, they’re the ones to blame. We’ll talk however we want, sorry, please, and thank you.

But one of the simultaneously disappointing and illuminating things I’ve learned in my own career is long-held standards are stubborn. Fighting for equal pay, demanding to be trusted, having one’s work recognized and not taken credit for by male superiors are all uphill battles, one where the combatants are usually men in power. Spillane argues modifying our voices is one of a whole host of things women are asked to do to be taken seriously in the workplace, but it has the benefit of being the only free, accessible, and relatively easy one. (“Would you go to work in sweatpants?” she asks.) Lesley Berglund, another of Spillane’s clients, agreed: “The power of communication is very strong and too few people focus on mastering it,” she told me over the phone. “But it’s low-hanging fruit! It’s one of the things that you can do in order to show you know you’re good at your job.” 

If that feels like kowtowing to male standards, Spillane says, think of it this way: If men are too stupid to hear you through your “female” speech patterns, playing them at their own game is the quickest way to outsmart and then surpass them. “I would say that 80 to 90 percent of the women I work with come and say they have a male asshole at their job — or four of them — who is having a very negative impact on her confidence,” she tells me. Their goal is always to get these men out of their way, to achieve without being kept down.

“Men are not disciplined thinkers,” she continues. “They’re not disciplined thinkers because for the most part they don’t have to be. Women are, because we have to be. Think about what it takes to run a home, to organize the children, to go out and find yourself an apartment and sign a lease and move all your things, organize the moving — women still traditionally do all of that, plus the corporate roles they happen to have chosen. We are disciplined people by nature. Men are not because they have it all done for them.” And that’s why the speech and communication debate includes them, as well. The world is just less inclined to question the typically “male” way of acting.

“Men are extremely poor communicators,” Spillane says. “They just ramble on and on and on. They do not get to the point quickly.” But they’re also not going anywhere anytime soon. So, she says, if we’re ever going to topple the patriarchy, we’re going to have to play by their rules — but only long enough so to infiltrate from the inside.

Should Women Change Their Voices at the Office?