On Instagram in late January, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a series of stories calling out the prejudice inside the cringy phrase “word salad.” It’s an accusation of muddled speech that’s lobbed at people (okay, women) whose communication style differs from the traditional speaking patterns we associate with leadership—a.k.a men, or, really, any of us who match that linguistic style in order to get taken seriously. Any of us, for example, who endeavor to speak low and slow and use abstract and visionary language, or who aim for direct speech rather than roundabout. Ocasio-Cortez suggested that sometimes, despite our best efforts, when we think out loud, we’re told our words are impossible to follow—because really, what the listener means is they have no intention of trying to follow someone who doesn’t sound like them.
The truth is, each of us inadvertently shares whole dossiers of information about our lives when we speak, revealing where we’ve been and where we’re going through our accent, style of speech, and word choice (lofty or colloquial, sweary or clean, peppered with “like”s and “just”s, or more to-the-point). And those linguistic quirks shift as we bend our speech to fit the occasion. After all, you likely speak differently to your mom than you do to a lawyer or a little kid or your partner. You might alternate between dialects or whole languages to fit in, or get what you want, or pull rank, or keep yourself safe.
Read more: Talking Less Will Get You More
Most of us make these sorts of negotiations at rapid speed and often without conscious thought every single day, as we wrestle with how we’re perceived and how we want to be. In other words, the lengths we’ll go to avoid hearing “word salad.”
For 15 years, I’ve told movie stars what to do with their tongues. As a Hollywood dialect coach, I would talk vowels and consonants with clients desperate to sound clearer to American ears or those just putting on a funny voice for a fun new role. I’d spend whole days on set, listening in on the sounds coming out of my actors’ mouth, and then, between takes, gently nudge the wayward ones in the right direction.
But during the 2018 midterms, I began to help political candidates, too—regular folks going public for the first time, being seen and heard at scale, whose communication hurdles were not due to accent but rather an acute awareness of the kinds of vocal traps Ocasio-Cortez alluded to. And then I began coaching rising business leaders needing new tools to level up. Inevitably it would be women who’d find me, or those with a voice marked for race or class or not-from-around-here, trying to get taken seriously despite a mismatch between their own voice and the traditional sound of authority.
I knew all along that each of us tells a story with our voice, beyond the words—with the tone, the accent, the inflection, the pitch, the rhythm, the ways we hide behind monotone or overuse filler words. But it took working with these leaders to realize: We’re actually all performing power with how we talk.
After all, move your tongue a millimeter one direction or the other and it could affect your job prospects, whether your lease application is accepted, or if you’re taken seriously when you run for office. Finish your sentence with a whimper not a bang and risk losing credibility: For decades now, we’ve heard that habits like vocal fry and upspeak render millennial women and younger generations incapable of sounding professional, let alone like a boss. In a study founded by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, analysts concluded that “relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.”
If you’re sick of getting dismissed or undervalued when you speak, it stands to reason you’d work to change those habits that signal you don’t deserve power. To speak “normal,” as it were. According to Dr. Michael Kraus, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, during even brief interactions, speech patterns shape our perceptions of the speaker’s overall competence. His study suggests we’re able to judge “social class” with reliable accuracy merely from hearing seven random words. “We rarely talk explicitly about social class, and yet, people with hiring experience infer competence and fitness based on socioeconomic position estimated from a few seconds of an applicant’s speech,” Kraus said.
What do most of us do with this onslaught of information? Maybe you brush it off and speak unapologetically in your own voice anyway. But most folks eyeing leadership end up turning to executive presence trainings or coaches. They master code-switching to hide their difference or obsessively count their “um”s, policing themselves before anyone else does. They chase the traditional sound of power so they might speak like the standard one day too—or they just hate the sound of their voice.
But there is a third way, and it requires that we name what’s true: That the standard is entirely arbitrary, and its origins suspect. Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, confirms that no accent or style of speech has inherent value over any other. In fact, “considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning.”
First impressions aren’t really first impressions; they’re inherited biases. And we can learn, as listeners, to check them. Get curious about who you instinctively take seriously based on how they speak and who you don’t. Consider just how many different ways the people around us communicate in sound, style, volume of words, and what’s left unsaid. If our voices reflect our life experience, we actually each sound unique. What does it take for us to celebrate that vast diversity of sound, rather than judge it?
When Ocasio-Cortez was still a candidate for U.S. Congress, less than a year out from tending bar, she came through Los Angeles, and I grabbed a ticket to hear her speak at a sweaty church in Koreatown. While I inched along city streets blasting the air conditioning in my car, I called my mom and told her where I was going. She exclaimed, “Oh good, she needs you!”
“Oh God,” I thought. My mom’s my biggest fan and she meant well. “Mom, I think she’s doing just fine without me,” I responded.
“No, no,” she pushed back. “That voice. I can’t take her seriously with that voice.” My mother is a second-wave feminist, the kind who got a Fulbright scholarship, went to law school, and kept her last name when she married. But my mother couldn’t take her seriously with that voice. I knew what she meant, of course. Ocasio-Cortez’s voice is a bit nasal. A bit higher-pitched than we’re used to hearing from elected officials. She sounds distinctly Millennial, distinctly female, and above all, warm—like she was probably an excellent bartender who knew all of the regulars. I don’t say this to be flip; we all pick up valuable vocal skills from the rooms we’ve mastered and that one’s a pressure cooker. She sounds like where she’s from and who she is. She sounds like she has no interest in apologizing for it.
“Or maybe, she’s teaching us what getting taken seriously might sound like,” I responded, feeling a burst of fire.
After all, it is up to us to determine what we take seriously. It’s up to us whom we give authority, and it should be based on merit, more than sounds coming out of a mouth. This is totally obvious, of course, but in the real world the equation is complicated by implicit biases born of traditions, industries, and policies meant to keep those once powerful, still powerful. My mom is not the bad guy in this story; most of us could stand to take a flamethrower to our preconceptions.
And our preconceptions about our own voice, while we’re at it. Focus for a moment on yours. What do you like about it? I bet these sounds that come out of your mouth, your way with words, yours, has served you somewhere in some way. Consider how. Who do you sound like and why is that wonderful? Who can you connect with because of how you talk?
If this vast diversity of sound were the new normal—what would be possible?