Word(l)y Wednesdays – Vox Populi

(Language and Ethics)

The past two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about voice, specifically the voices I adopt when I’m talking or writing to certain audiences. The more I considered the voices I use and the situations I use them in, the more I questioned whether any of them were “fake” voices. And once I realized that I might be using a voice that wasn’t necessarily genuine, the entire fabric started to unravel: Is using a voice (style, etc.) that isn’t genuine to you a form of deception? Is it unethical? So those were the troubles I was facing.

Taken by Wikimedia user Benjamint444 -- Creative Commons license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

[Backing up a bit, when I’m talking about voice in this post, I’m not talking about grammatical voice, with the actives and passives. The ways you use active and passive voice could be considered part of the voice I’m talking about, but I’m referring more to just general language style.]

Personally, I’ve found myself writing and speaking in three different voices: (1) uncomfortable, (2) comfortable,  and (3) authoritative.

I use Voice #1 when I’m around new people, friends of friends or people I’m meeting in some sort of school or business setting. Voice #1 is very unsure and does a lot of backtracking and restating. I don’t like Voice #1, to be honest, but it’s a product of general anxiety from being in an unpredictable situation and not wanting to misstep. (I also use it sometimes when I’m pointing out someone’s error but don’t want to hurt their feelings.)

I use Voice #2 around people I’ve known for some time, usually friends or coworkers that I”ve known for years. (Yes, years. I’m very aware that my comfort curve has a snail’s pace.) Voice #2 is more casual and has a lot of false starts and missteps, but they’re usually the result of trying to get information across quickly and accurately, and less the result of worrying about social faux pas. (Incidentally, if you didn’t know, “faux pas” is French for “false step,” so I used it instead of saying “misstep” over and over. Unfortunately, when you use French you run the risk of sounding pretentious, which is a concern that Voice #1 would consider before speaking.) I consider Voice #2 to be my “true” voice.

I use Voice #3 when I’m teaching or pointing out an error in a way that I’m not worried about hurting someone’s feelings. It’s the voice of authority. Generally I only use it when I”m confident that what I’m saying is true or correct, or that I’m completely within my rights to say it, both of which are less likely than either of the other voices.

Voice #3 is the voice I am least comfortable using, although when I get in the authoritative voice, it’s the hardest for me to get out of.  Like I said before, Voice #2 is the voice that is most comfortable for me to use and the one that feels most “true” to me. The other two are accompanied by certain levels of discomfort and falsity.

Realizing that led me to look at the media I’m most comfortable communicating in. What I found is that I prefer dialogue to monologue, and that I prefer text to speech. Let me see if I can explain.

I prefer text to speech because it gives me more time to decode what other people are saying to me, to give the message proper thought and analysis, and to encode my response to send back. Usually that keeps me comfortable enough that I can respond in my Voice #2, even to people I don’t know well. Unfortunately, sometimes I can be a little too confident when I’m allowed to process with text, which gets me sounding more arrogant and Voice #3 than I ever want to be.

My preference for dialogue (conversation) over monologue (speeches, blog posts, etc.) is a little simpler. Dialogue allows me to constantly check myself against the other person in the conversation: ask for feedback, hear conflicting opinions, gauge each small burst of communication immediately. It also lets me admit more readily when I don’t know something for sure, which is a personal style choice I try to include across all three voices, but which is more difficult for people to accept from Voice #3 (how can you act so authoritative and yet admit ignorance?).

So speeches and presentations are hell-on-earth for me, blog posts nearly so (because they’re so monologous), Facebook/Twitter/text-messaging are my media of choice, and in-person conversation (especially phone calls) are uncomfortable again, but at the other end of the spectrum. So I stick to Facebook and Twitter, and I use them more to bounce ideas off people than to document my daily dealings. (Logging my day feels like a monologue, inviting input more like dialogue.)

…Which finally brings me back to my initial question: Does communicating in a voice or medium that feels “fake” to me mean I’m being deceptive? If it does (and believe me, it does), do I have an obligation to find a way to communicate in a way that feels more real and true to myself? Would I have to go so far as to limit my communication in that voice or medium if I can’t find a way to do it “truthfully” and successfully?

I honestly don’t know. For me, I think the answer to the first question is “Yes,” the second “Also yes,” and the third “Only as a last resort,” but I also think those might just be personal answers and not necessarily universal ones. Let me know what you think.

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