This is a story about two women in science.
I finished fieldwork on Monday and drove down the next day to San Francisco to hear my friend Laurie’s practice talk for an upcoming meeting. We first went out to dinner at a Korean restaurant, where we were seated at a tiny table for two. To our left was another pair of diners, a man and a woman, close enough that we could have all linked arms and sung Kumbaya if we’d wanted.
Except things went from fine to sour. While summarizing my fieldwork to Laurie, I noticed the man (next to me) twitching his head in my direction and gesturing to his companion. Was he indicating something about me? Then I heard him say: “Upspeak. She’s using upspeak. Do you know what that is?” The woman replied no. “It’s where people’s voices go up when they talk. She’s doing it. I can’t stand it.”
Reflexively I began checking my speech. First, his definition of upspeak was wrong. While I was certainly altering my pitch, I was not turning every sentence into a question. (Hold on, why did I instantly try to correct myself?) Second, it became impossible to continue the conversation. It was like talking on a cell phone that echoes — mid-sentence, I’d see the head jerk and lose my train of thought. We were not happy.
Laurie tried to tell me about her own latest work, using tools to scan the genome for transcription factor binding motifs. Ignoring the fact that we were talking shop, the man started gesturing toward her with his chopsticks. “Women do it more than men,” he informed his companion. “Girls more than guys.”
Laurie soldiered on, asking me an actual question ending in an actual question mark. When he waved in dismissal at her upward inflection, the irritation boiled over. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry, it’s really annoying to have you commenting on our conversation.”
I stared into the blue eyes and frozen smile of a middle-aged man; I registered wispy light hair and a sport jacket. Who was this person who thought it was okay to treat us like bugs under a microscope?
We were all flustered. I wanted to say more, but I knew I would trip over my words. Laurie and I recall his reply, “Well, it’s more annoying to have to hear it. And I didn’t realize you could hear us,” followed by the woman’s apology. (Hold on, why was she the one to say sorry?) Everyone returned to their respective conversations, but of course the tension remained.
He quickly made himself disagreeable in other ways, undermining his companion with statements like “You never know how to make a long story short, do you?” Also, he said “No!” when requested to eat his food.
The awkwardness flared again when we made room for them to leave. The man turned before reaching the door, looked at us, and said, “I hope you have a nice night.” I gave him the benefit of the doubt, managing a tight smile and thank you before watching him exit our lives.
We spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak. Oh, wait, no, we worked for two hours on Laurie’s talk, which contains two years of impressive and meticulous findings on recombination rate variation in great apes.
Then we spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak.
The offenders in question? Clearly we need some more recent photos?
(a) I re-read the recent commentaries on vocal fry, the latest women’s speech pattern to throw everyone up in arms. Quotes:
- “For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences…So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.” (Amanda Hess, Slate, 7 January 2013)
- “Judgments about speech are judgments about the speakers themselves…Inherently there is of course nothing unsophisticated about vocal fry, up-talk, or using ‘like.’ All this is to say that normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes.” (Gabriel Arana, Atlantic, 10 January 2013)
This isn’t to say I don’t notice those tics myself. After all, my peers and I grew up with those same social attitudes. But something about that man’s fixation was especially grating. He interrupted a serious work discussion to comment on our voices and not our words. We were judged for something unrelated to the content of our character, then treated to an unsavory glimpse of his. I only hope those judgments weren’t shoved directly into a mental bin of All Women Are. Given his behavior, I’m not optimistic. But I can still hope.
(b) Corollary 1: Even if we had been talking about clothes/hair/dating, we still shouldn’t have felt obliged to defend our intelligence or ourselves. Corollary 2: Would he have done the same thing if one or both of us had been male? If there had been a man with us? (“Further experiments manipulating sex ratio will test whether the subject’s reactions are always this awful.”)
(c) It felt so good to speak up, even if I wasn’t totally composed. Credit to Women in Science and Engineering, “Lean In,” biology seminars, and my mom (who once stopped in the middle of a violin recital to tell the audience to shut up). I wish it hadn’t felt revolutionary to be assertive to a stranger, and I wish I’d stayed articulate under pressure. But this just means next time will feel a little less boat-rocking, and I’ll keep my presence of mind a little longer, until it will no longer be blogworthy to ask for respect. I want to try again.
(d) So, to the man at dinner, wherever you are: I hope you understand our perspective and why your behavior was upsetting. My friend and I were engaged in normal adult conversation and deserve to be treated like normal adult diners. Please refrain from judging us, and judging us incorrectly. I hope we made an impact on you as much as you did on us.
Also, we are very sorry about your penis.
Hit it, Feminist Taylor Swift.