In the past few weeks, two very different versions of my style have emerged. A colleague complimented me for speaking out on certain topics, and called me “fearless.” In that moment, my usual shame about the pseudo-working class rhetorical style I carry left me for a moment. Normally, I shift between two very different registers in my speech patterns. During formal research presentations and related moments, my style is overly formal, using the jargon of my field and elevated, even archaic language at times. This choice does not differ from most people in this kind of work environment, nor does the toggling I do from that register to a less formal one. The real difference is the level of informality represented in my other mode.
In less formal meetings and everyday conversations with colleagues, I find it impossible to sustain formal speech patterns, and sadly my lower register ranges from verbal tics of the very young – overusing “like” – to liberal use of blue language and harsh imagery. Often my use of profanity responds to troubling information about sexist happenings at my institution or to disappointing political news. Yet, my middle class, mid-western co-workers sometimes become put-off by vehemence or cursing. They accept me anyway, but their acceptance and collegiality seems to come despite my style. In other words, they look past it or show mild amusement at it, or less often, dismiss the vehemence. They do not see it as a strength, and usually, neither do I. I cringe when people who have never heard a family member curse, clearly feel uncomfortable with my language or my emphasis. For decades, I have worked to eliminate both certain patterns and individual words from my lexicon, and I can do so in the short term. I’ve also worked to dampen any obvious display of my anger and frustration, so that I don’t frighten the people around me. They are hardly shy about voicing their opinions and can interrupt or talk over others when necessary, but they do it with a smile, which seems to make most things acceptable in this part of the world. But I’m still the person who heard raised voices and profanity almost daily but Tennyson only on the weekends, and my informal speech patterns reflect that legacy.
So when this co-worker named me “fearless” I was surprised. Pleased but quite surprised. Perhaps there are moments when my verbal style provides some clarity or allows others permission to be angry at truly unjust situations. It reminds me of a recent blog post about the usefulness of anger for feminists. The writer explains to readers that anger has been denied women, silencing them and others, who do not fit the norm. It also reminds me that my style can be an asset. While I have spent most of my professional life working to erase the class markers evident in my rhetoric, especially the easy move to righteous anger that makes the middle class so nervous, I may stop trying so hard.