Even if you've never heard of "vocal fry" or "upspeak," you probably hear people speak in these patterns every day.
Vocal fry is when someone's voice gets lower and turns gravely, usually drawn out at the end of a sentence. It's the sound of the next generation: in a study published in the Journal of Voice, more than two-thirds of female college students spoke with vocal fry. The low, guttural affectation has been dismissed—mostly by old guys —as annoying and unprofessional, blamed on eye-roll-inducing celebs like Zooey Deschanel, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, and the Kardashians. Fast Company warns that vocal fry could "kill your job search" and ruin phone interviews.
This is just the latest speaking trend for American women. There's also upspeak, which is when? People talk? Like every phrase is a question? That's on top of our overuse of "like," Valley-Girl talk, and the higher register of the female voice.
Women talk differently by social nature and biology, and they're the ones most likely to adopt new vocal patterns, linguists told the New York Times. Faced with criticism over the way we talk, women have to examine how these patterns may become problematic (that is, if they make our communication less effective) or if the criticism is misguided (and the result of underlying gender biases).
When we talk about women's "voices" in Christianity, we usually mean it figuratively. In this case, their actual voices influence their roles across society, including the church.
Kathryn Lester serves alongside female pastors at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina. Word got around that some older couples left the congregation because they "couldn't hear" the message from the pulpit each Sunday, putting the pastor's voice—and gender—at fault.
"It's something I've been tuned into for years," said Lester, who learned to speak louder, slower, and clearer while working as a chaplain with the elderly after graduating from seminary at Princeton University. "I would take it seriously when people complain they can't hear you… but it's not just women who can't be heard."
Princeton's speech and preaching courses recognize the new cadences of young voices, male and female, she said. Some seminaries are now creating special courses for women in ministry that focus on a fast-talking, like-ridden generation.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth developed an "expository communication for women" course to focus specifically on women's speaking styles and venues. The school holds a complementarian view and works to equip its growing female student body as women's ministries leaders, seminary lecturers, and more.
"If people can't understand us, then that's a problem because what we are communicating is a passionate message," said Terri Stovall, dean of women's programs.
Instructors record students speaking and make recommendations, such as slowing their pace, slightly lowering their voice so older listeners can hear better, and harnessing their emotions when sharing stories.
There aren't a lot of examples of female speakers in the church for them to turn to as examples, so "sometimes they make themselves sound too much like a man," Stovall said. "We still want to maintain our femininity and sound like women."
Lester, who leads youth and children's ministry at the Presbyterian church, also recognizes this problem. "There are a lot of traditions where there is more familiarity with the male voice," she said, "so it's coded that there is something right with the male voice."
She fears that sometimes criticism of women's voices come with double standards. For example, a female church leader who laughs gets characterized as giggly and flighty, while a man who laughs is seen as approachable and friendly.
The perception of women's voices becomes increasingly important for Christians as more leadership roles open to women, both in ministries and outreach groups and congregation-wide. Acceptance of women's leadership in business and government has led to more support for female ordination, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Last week, PRRI reported that more than 6 in 10 white evangelical Protestants agreed that women should be eligible for ordination.
Rachel Held Evans recently brought up the sound of the female voice as an outward sign of her gender as she analyzed remarks from John Piper on the difference between a woman teaching in-person and through a book. She writes, "So long as I keep a safe distance so he is unaware of the pitch of my voice and the presence of my breasts, he can, perhaps, learn something about the Bible from me. So long as I am not 'in-his-face' (his words) with my femaleness, it will be easier for him to treat me as someone worth learning from; it will be easier for him to treat me like a man." Her point reminds us that not only is the female voice our vehicle for oral communication, it is a significant dimension of our personhood. It is part of who we are.
Given more opportunities to speak out and speak up, women may need to shift elements of their voices to help audiences understand them (same goes for men who talk too fast or mumble), but not all our feminine traits need to go away for the sake of sounding like a straightforward, serious, male professional. Some things, people are going to have to get used to. Slate's blog Double X, puts it this way, "As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard." I'd say that goes for the church, too.
Regardless of our theological beliefs on women in leadership, we can agree, and heartily affirm, that the female voice is part of our full expression of our selves. High voice, giggly interludes, vocal fry, and all.
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