“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him! The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him!”
Today’s latest “Let’s hate the President!” item from the news media was the leaked news that Trump can’t stand how AG Jeff Sessions speaks. Politico reported yesterday that Trump has griped “to aides and lawmakers” “that Sessions isn’t a capable defender of the President on television — in part because he ‘talks like he has marbles in his mouth.’”
As usual, the fact that some un-named source says something doesn’t make it true, or, for that matter, legitimate to reports as news, by hey, it’s Donald Trump, so fairness, ethical journalism and professionalism are suspended, right? If you hate the man, here’s more non-substantive, unproven stuff to believe and complain about on line, and if your business is to try to define and encourage standards of societal and workplace ethics, here’s one more chance to be vilified on Facebook as a “Trump supporter” by pointing out that it is wrong for anyone to be subjected to hearsay snipe attacks like that.
In this case, however, there is another factor. There are a lot of speech habits and styles that I have a visceral dislike of too. Some I can defend, some are just a matter of taste, regional influences and upbringing, and some are genuine impediments to my treating people fairly.
Here’s one that my Facebook friends will love, for example: the way Donald Trump talks drives me crazy. His repetitive vocabulary–every thing is “great,” “strong,” “weak,” “stupid,” “smart,” “sad” or “tough; everyone is a “loser,” a “moron” “out of control,” or “dangerous”–signals “uneducated simpleton” to me. I’ve read all of the scholarly examinations of Trumps communications style and why it is effective, and I understand the theories. They are probably right. Where I come from, however, size, precision and variety of vocabulary is deemed a reliable way of gauging intellectual capacity.
President Trump is far from the first or only President whose speaking skills and habits triggered biases. Lyndon Johnson’s slow drawl sounded insincere to my ear. Jimmy Carter’s speech patterns and accent were annoying and sanctimonious. Ford’s dead monotone was like finger-nails on a blackboard to me. Both Bushes were such artificial public speakers that I came to hate listening to them. When it comes to public speakers, I resent anyone who keeps using amateurish and unpleasant speaking habits, because I know that they can be easily fixed. The same is true of trial lawyers, and anyone who has to communicate for a living. If you are willing to work, if you care about your listeners at all, you can address all but the most physiologically embedded speaking problems. To me, as someone who has coached speakers professionally (and been coached as well), the bad habits of speakers like Johnson, Carter and the Bushes–don’t get me started on the losers like McCain, Dole, and Hillary—just tell me that they don’t care. They are lazy and arrogant. They could be better communicators, which means they could be better at their jobs. They aren’t willing to put in the effort.
Many speaking habits of women especially irritate me, and I have to fight the reflex impulse to think worse of them based on their speech alone.. Strident styles, like Elizabeth Warren. Women who speak in their head voices, rather than placing the sound properly in their chest. Breathy speakers. One of the worst habits is “vocal fry,” which I am either hearing more often, or becoming less tolerant of.
Then, of course, there are the class, regional, racial, ethnic and educational variations that Rex Harrison was talk-singing about. Using “ain’t” or the wrong version of “to be” (“He don’t…”) create instant bias for me. So are thick accents that an attentive English-speaker can’t understand easily: yes, I get testy at a fast food drive-through when a McDonald’s employee speaks so fast and with such a heavy accent that she is incomprehensible. Some of my annoyance is justifiable: if communicating with the public is part of your job, then do it right. Some is, I know, intolerance, impatience, and unfair.
I was raised by and grew up with almost exclusively people who spoke clear, articulate, standard English. If I were not, as Henry says, I might be selling flowers too. We all have biases; biases are unavoidable. They make us stupid, and often make us bigoted, mean and intolerant. Speech biases cause us to jump to unfair and unjustified conclusions. This is my confession: I have the Henry Higgins Syndrome.
I’m aware of it, I’m working on it, and I’m trying to minimize its effect on how I assess people. That’s all any of us can do.
That, and learn to speak better, dammit!