Let’s talk about using your voice.
Since I was 17 I’ve written down my ideas and shared them with the Internet. It started with a blog about sewing, progressing to fashion, progressing to arts and culture. Now I write about whatever intrigues me at that moment, hoping it will intrigue others too. Recently a friend and I even thought it would be fun to start a podcast.
This means I’ve used my voice, in some form, for over ten years, spluttering out opinions to strangers on the internet and wondering if one (or two) of them might stick.
Why do I do that? Why did I think that was a good idea? What compels me to continue doing it? How do I know if people even care? How do I know they listen?
How does one use their voice, and not freak the fuck out about it?
At some point in your life, you will have used your voice and someone has told you to shut up.
Maybe it was at school, where you answered too many questions – or asked the wrong sort of questions. Maybe it was at home, when a parent got tired of your playfulness. Maybe it was a stranger who shouted at you on the bus, or told you off for expressing an opinion, Maybe it was in a relationship, when a partner laid scorn on an opinion or request or emotion. Maybe it was just yesterday, when your boss told you to keep a lid on it and not cause a ruckus. And on and on and on.
That first time – and every time after – we are told to be quiet sticks with us, and can prevent us from using our voice for many years. Or, it may not prevent us but it will reduce what we do and encourage us to apologise for expressing ourselves.
I was brought up to be a ‘good girl’ which often meant being quiet, calm and well-behaved – at least in public. At home we had a lot more freedom. That meant I learnt it was okay to use my voice in private, around certain people who ‘understood’ me – but my voice had to be monitored and managed in the public domain.
That had a number of outcomes.
Outcome number one
I became a good copywriter, because I understood how to flex one’s voice for different situations. Great!
Outcome number two
I became hyper-vigilant of my voice and where, when and how to use it. Not great!
Outcome number three
I became frustrated at my hyper-vigilance and would often, randomly, rebel against managing my voice and say things which were hurtful, disrespectful, cruel or wrong because I had bottled up my ‘real’ voice for too long. Not great!
How you are implicitly or explicitly taught to use your voice from the moment you begin talking affects how you will use your voice as an adult, despite you being a very different person to that Little You. And it manifests itself in so many ways. Like…
Someone I know apologises for asking for what they want.
Someone I know prefaces every explanation with ‘basically’, as if they are trying to reduce the strength of what they’re saying.
Someone I know only talks about a subject for which they have all available information (which is impossible).
Someone I know shuts themselves down when they get deeply passionate.
Someone I know shuts themselves down when their voice cracks with sadness.
Someone I know says “this is stupid but…”.
These are all hangovers from when they were taught how to use their voice ‘properly’, and it stops them from expressing themselves fully.
I’ve watched voice-management first hand, from within people, and also from without. How about:
“It’s not ladylike to swear.”
“You can’t say that!”
“There’s no need to raise your voice.”
It’s all voice-management. It’s all someone else, or the internalised language of someone else, telling you how to express yourself and how to use your voice ‘properly’ aka in a socially acceptable way.
I don’t know about you, but socially acceptable smacks to me of ‘continuing the status quo’. And the status quo – don’t know if you’ve noticed this recently but – the status quo is seriously fucked up.
I’ve experienced this from others and I’m a cis white British woman with white privilege. The voice-management I and other white people, white women, have experienced is nothing compared to the voice-management of black women, women of colour, people of colour, trans people, queer people, and people with disabilities, by those looking to preserve a fucked-up status quo. The corrosive and consistent voice-management of marginalised groups is real and unacceptable.
We replicate structures of voice-repression in ourselves. We tell ourselves we’re not allowed to say certain things, take certain tones. We’re not allowed to shout or use this word or that word or swear in front of so-and-so or – and here’s the big one – we’re not allowed to get angry.
Fuck that! Fuck that right off!
There is so much to be angry and sad and shouting about. We have been given a full range of vocal expression, so let’s use it. Let’s swear like navvies and scream as loudly as we possibly can and use the words we need to use to say the things we need to say.
If we do that with the most ‘negative’ of our emotions, it might free us up to do it with the most ‘positive’.
Maybe we’ll be able to say the things to our loved ones we really need to say. Maybe we’ll be able to tell each other “I love you” without flinching. Maybe we’ll be able to really laugh, you know the dirty snickering cackling fuck-that’s-funny-laugh which so many of us repress because we’re concerned someone might look at us. Maybe we’ll be able to really talk to each other, and maybe we’ll stop voice-managing others whose words or tone or laughter or anger touches us too deeply.
Maybe we’ll be able to let everyone speak.
How does one use their voice, and not freak the fuck out about it?
Everyone will do this differently. But here’s how I try to do it:
- I recognise I have a unique voice. I recognise it changes every day.
- I know when and where and how I was told to manage my voice.
- I know when and where and how I replicate this management internally.
- I practise not doing that. I practise using my full vocal range, tonally and linguistically.
- I say what I need to say, in the way I need to say it.
- I practise not voice-managing others. I practise non-violent communication. If I do not do this for any reason, I apologise and try harder next time.
- I recognise what I need to say, and the way I need to say it, might make others flinch. I try and be okay with that.
And, importantly, I recognise when I need to shut the fuck up. Sometimes, your voice is not the most important one in the room.
I was inspired to write about voice by two women.
First, Layla Saad whose work on white women’s privilege is reshaping my world view, including her recent Instagram challenge on white supremacy. Please look at her work.
Second, Kiri Pritchard-McLean, a comedian who, at a recent gig, had someone on the front row whisper “She swears an awful lot”. Kiri rightly called out the whisperer and later on in the show said “I use comedy as my voice and it’s a shame you want to censor that.”
Be inspired by these women. Use your voice without apologising. Try those steps above. Let me know if you do so.
This comic on Everyday Feminism is also a good primer on one facet of voice-management, tone policing.