The Goldilocks Voice for Female Speakers

You all know the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Not too hot, not too cold…but just right!

Not too aggres­sive, not too weak, just “right”. How do you find your Goldilocks Voice? Here’s the double-bind for female speakers.

Not too cold-Not too weak

Accord­ing to a recent study by Dr Judith Bax­ter, a lec­turer in applied lin­guis­tics at Aston Uni­ver­sity:

Women are four times more likely than men to be self-depreciating, use humor and speak indi­rectly or apolo­get­i­cally when broach­ing dif­fi­cult sub­jects with board mem­bers in order to avoid conflict.”

Source: Women told to speak their minds to get on in board­rooms. –The Guardian

To men, being self-depreciating and speak­ing indi­rectly can come across as weak.

Not too hot, not too aggressive

If women are as direct as men, they are often per­ceived, by both sexes, as being aggres­sive, rather than assertive.”  Deb­o­rah Tan­nen, lin­guist. Author of  “Talk­ing from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.”

No won­der women get scared to speak in pub­lic! The choice boils down to being per­ceived as a “ravis­sante idiote” or a Dom­i­na­trix bitch.

‘Women who are con­sid­ered fem­i­nine will be judged incom­pe­tent, and women who are com­pe­tent, unfem­i­nine. Women who speak out are immod­est and will be shamed, while women who are silent will be ignored or dis­missed.”                            — Kath­leen Hall Jamieson (already in 1995)

This is an Old Story…

When I was a lit­tle girl, my father used to have his surgeon’s pri­vate con­sul­tancy at home, twice a week. Dur­ing these after­noons, when his sec­re­tary would be away or busy, I was trained to answer the phone for his appoint­ments with his patients. I would take my role very seri­ously, rehearse my lines and try to adopt an “adult” voice, always polite and very care­ful about my enun­ci­a­tion. I devel­oped my lis­ten­ing skills.

One thing, how­ever, had to leave a last­ing neg­a­tive effect on my com­mu­ni­ca­tion. When­ever I was asked to make a phone call, my par­ents would always repeat to me, start with “excusez-moi de vous déranger” (“Please accept my apol­o­gize for dis­turb­ing you”)

You imag­ine? First I had to present my excuses, then I assumed I was both­er­ing, dis­turb­ing peo­ple when I had to speak to them! For my par­ents and their gen­er­a­tion, that was just a very nor­mal way for being polite and well edu­cated, espe­cially for a young girl.

How­ever, as an adult, I still hold on to that lim­it­ing belief that I have to apol­o­gize even before I open my mouth. I have fought it and become an exec­u­tive speak­ing coach, because I could relate so much with those difficulties.

Does it also sound famil­iar to you?

This morn­ing on twit­ter, I came across an inter­view by Liza Don­nelly where she was asked what advice she would give to her younger self. SPEAK UP, she said! Lessons to my Younger Self, in The Daily Muse.

One “female attribute” that was true back then and still lingers: fail­ure to speak out. Women and girls still tend to keep their thoughts to them­selves. I know I was scared as a young girl to speak my mind. I felt that I had to be a good girl and that meant keep­ing my mouth shut.This lasted into my thir­ties. I was fright­ened that I would “say some­thing wrong,” or appear unin­tel­li­gent. While this is not a gender-specific trait, I do believe that being quiet and sub­servient is a social­ized behav­ior in women: we are taught, in very sub­tle ways, to be silent.”

Why do women, espe­cially, apol­o­gize so much? Why do they take twice as long to make their point or use soft­en­ers and a lot of sor­rys? Why do they speak indi­rectly and as if they were “walk­ing on eggs”?…My next post, about being bold, will explore this fur­ther. Hint: it’s about being liked

In order to inspire trust, we need to develop trust in our­selves first. To believe in what we say and in our legit­i­macy to say it.

So what’s the “Just Right” Goldilocks Voice?

It’s YOUR voice, true, assertive, not apol­o­giz­ing, not aggres­sive. It’s your abil­ity to self-monitor or tem­per your behav­ior accord­ing to the situation.

A recent study from Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School shows that:

In the busi­ness world, women who are aggres­sive, assertive, and con­fi­dent but who can turn these traits on and off, depend­ing on the social cir­cum­stances, get more pro­mo­tions than either men or other women.

The research sug­gests that for women to be suc­cess­ful they must simul­ta­ne­ously present them­selves as self–confident and dom­i­nant while tem­per­ing these qual­i­ties with dis­plays of com­mu­nal characteristics.

Eas­ier said than done!

Here are a few tips.

  • Com­mit to your ideas. Be ready to be chal­lenged to dive into a discussion.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Speak loud enough, but not too loud either!
  • Be direct and go to the point. And lis­ten too.
  • Know when to shut up.
  • KISS. Keep it Short and Simple.
  • Stop mak­ing state­ments sound like ques­tions. And when you ask a ques­tion, actu­ally mean it and wait for the answer.
  • Accept that some peo­ple may not agree with you and that’s ok.
  • Accept that some peo­ple will actu­ally con­front you. Take that as a chal­lenge and an excit­ing oppor­tu­nity to develop your point and show what you have in your guts!

We must own our words, our talk. This is where our true power starts, our free­dom of speech. Break free from the double-bind. Find your Goldilock voice.

Fur­ther readings:

  • The Dou­ble –Bind Dilemna for Women in Lead­er­ship : Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t. Cat­a­lyst research to down­load here.
  • Insead Knowl­edge: Unshack­ling the Double-Bind of the Female Leader. Here is the article.
  • Know­ing When To Dis­play Mas­cu­line Traits. A Boon for Women.  Stan­ford Busi­ness Mag­a­zine Online. Read the arti­cle here.

I would love to hear your own sto­ries about your search for your “Goldilocks Voice”. Do you come across as “too weak” or “too aggres­sive”? How do inte­grate fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line traits? How do you untie this double-bind?

Related posts:

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5 Responses to The Goldilocks Voice for Female Speakers

  1. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? Well said, Marion.

    I wrote a blog post about a defin­ing moment for myself in using my voice. Inter­est­ingly, I’ve always been loud and bold, but not always in express­ing my ideas around peo­ple who intim­i­date me, due to fears of look­ing like an impos­tor and prov­ing that I really knew noth­ing. This expe­ri­ence I wrote about was a turn­ing point in dis­ci­plin­ing myself to speak up — no mat­ter what might be the con­se­quences — and stop hold­ing myself back. http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2007/07/remember-your-courage-and-move-forward.html

    • admin says:

      I just read your post and it made me laugh..the part when you refer to the senior direc­tor karate chop­ping ges­ture espe­cially…
      I can relate with the fear you describe when you feel that some­thing is ter­ri­bly wrong, nobody’s going to adress it and actu­ally YOU are this per­son who is going to stand up and speak up. It’s almost as if you were “pos­sessed”, urged to speak, pushed by an invis­i­ble voice. When you even­tu­ally do it, you are relieved and peo­ple come to you like around a mag­net.
      Know­ing when to stay silent and when to give in to that pow­er­ful urge is indeed tough to find. The more it is encour­aged at a yound age, the bet­ter. And then fos­tered through edu­ca­tion and at work.

      Many thanks for this insight­ful com­ment, Lisa.

  2. So true !!! Thanks for writ­ing it so well !

  3. Pingback: Re-Learning To Be Bold | Geronimo Coaching Now

  4. Pingback: To Be Present or Not to Be Present? And How To Know the Difference… | Geronimo Coaching Now

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