Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There's um-thing about her (and all of us)

Another female candidate for higher office is getting criticized for, among other things, her speaking skills, and today Maureen Dowd comes to Caroline Kennedy's defense in the New York Times:

I know about “you knows.” I use that verbal crutch myself, a bad habit that develops from shyness and reticence about public speaking.
Dowd goes on to discuss the issues raised about the Kennedy dynasty, her experience and more, but comes back to her speaking skills and notes:
People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.
Dowd's lending her voice (and platform) to defend Kennedy and does so in the same frustrated manner that millions of women do when they feel shut out of--or shut up in--public speaking situations from meetings to conventions. I hear it in hallways, on Twitter, and from my friends and training clients in private. At the same time, citizens have few other ways to evaluate political figures than to parse their speaking skills...and their opponents, particularly when faced with a political dynasty, may have few other chinks in the armor to attack. And, of course, most people define eloquence as the ability to speak extemporaneously in roll-off-the-tongue, smooth-sounding sentences--words that go beyond basics to flourishes and turns of phrase that make us pause and listen, and that move us to a place beyond our daily lives.

I'll be exploring the historic reasons that women have had few--and hard-won--opportunities to speak in public throughout history, even in our time, in other posts. But, putting that aside for a moment, let's look at the supposed stumbling block: using "you know," another version of "um." According to Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, these types of verbal blunders make up 5% to 8% of everyone's daily speech--that's everyone, not just those in the spotlight. "You know" may be, as Dowd suggests, a sign of hesitancy, but it also serves as "um" does, as a pause to think of what to say when you don't know what to say. Ums and their near equivalents can increase when your hands are immobilized (clasped, gripping a lectern or just in your pockets) and in general, suggest a need to anticipate questions and prepare answers--nothing more sinister, stupid or suggestive. (Photo of Kennedy by Kate Sherrill on Flickr)


Anonymous said...

Not to be inflammatory, but the current president has given phatic utterances (linguists' term for "um" and its relatives) a bad name. That's worth noting because it has changed the gender angle of the discussion considerably.

Phatic utterances are just about their own subfield in linguistics; if you dive into Language & Behavior Abstracts, you'll come out dripping with scholarship.

To take things in a goofball direction (almost always a good thing), I feel compelled to point out that phatic can easily be misheard as vatic -- so that CK's hemming and hawing is suddenly converted into prophesy, from God's ear to yours.

Denise Graveline said...

Thanks for underscoring my point, M.--this isn't about a women being under-skilled if everyone, men and women do it. There's wonderful neuroscience research (the source of the keep-hands-out-of-pockets tip) as well as language and behavior scholarship, indeed--but this blog uses such things in moderation. Nice turns of phrase from you, as usual!

Anonymous said...

Scholarship should *always* be used in moderation, especially by scholars.

Must be going, there's an angry mob after me.

Fletcher Prince said...

Oh, thank goodness for Ms. Dowd cutting her a break. It's nice to see a little generosity from the media, for a change!

Fluency is a funny thing. In my DREAMS, I am a fantastic ice skater AND ballet dancer. I have studied both but it is one thing to know what to do and another thing entirely to have your feet and legs do it. I speak French, Italian and Spanish, but I speak those much more fluently in my dreams as well (which is a common occurrence among people who study foreign languages).

I think ums may be similar. The brain knows what to say but somewhere along the neural pathways, it stubs its toe and out comes an "um." Instead of that really good point you were about to make. I take comfort that it's pretty common.