Policing Women’s Language.

In 2016, I composed a letter of resignation from my post stating I needed mental reprieve and rest. What went unsaid was the organization’s inherent toxicity, lack of regard for personal space, and increasing value differences were among the reasons I had decided to quit. However, as demanded by professional protocol, I apologized for leaving the organization at a critical point and for the suddenness of the decision. In truth, I did not want to apologize.


Academically, apologies have been credited with “almost miraculous qualities”, and have been called “powerful”. In conflict resolution and relationship well-being, apologies have been attributed to “increase victim forgiveness, reduce anger and aggression toward the transgressor, improve evaluations of the transgressor, and validate the perceptions of the victim”. Research as early as 1978 shows that apologies are acts of politeness, which help, at least theoretically, to neutralize the shared space between the apologizer and the apology recipient. Karina Schumann writes, “It is thus not surprising that women, who are stereotypically considered to be more polite and relationally concerned than men, are also commonly believed to be more apologetic.”

Schumann presented her doctoral thesis on “When and Why Women Apologize More than Men” in 2011, a research which when it became public had women’s long-known apprehensions and doubt, “Do I apologize often?” validated. But unlike earlier studies, which only upheld old stereotypes through anecdotes or without objective evidence, Schumann’s research had six different studies, which helped one understand whether women apologize more than men, and if so, under what circumstances. The studies had the following results summarised as under:

  1. “Women apologized more frequently than men do.” But this is not to say that women and men value apology differently, or that one group is more willing to apologize than the other. Research showed that both women and men considered apologies to have positive outcomes and that they were willing to apologize wherever necessary.
  2. “Women may apologize more often than men do because they have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.” The difference between women and men could be because of difference in judgement regarding the severity of the offence, and hence deserving of an apology. Schumann found, “Rather than men being more reluctant to apologize than women, it appears men apologize less frequently than women do because they tend to perceive offense as less severe and therefore less deserving of an apology.”
  3. “Women (but not men) endorse the stereotype that women apologize more often than men do.”
  4. In marriage and cohabiting relationships, “there are almost no gender differences in the number of offenses and apologies reported.”

A closer look at the results also indicate that social and cultural factors have a higher influence on women, where women are often socialized to distinguish between right and wrong behaviour, especially as performed by them. More importantly, policed morally, socially, bodily, it is not surprising that women internalize a particularly wide range of instances and behaviours that they need to be sorry about – the most common and often unnoticed apology that women make is for being a woman.


A recent development in the media is the increase in the scrutiny relegated to women’s speech, language, and communication. More popular among the business and career coaching experts, words and phrases like ‘Just’, ‘Sorry’, ‘I guess’, ‘Like’, ‘I mean’, ‘I’m no expert but’ and ‘So’ are considered “undermining words” and sometimes, even “useless”. Tami Reiss, who built the Just Not Sorry plug-in for Google Chrome promotes it by saying that qualifiers such as the above-mentioned, reduce women’s surety about what they are saying. The plug-in intends to “kick the habit by making it obvious when these qualifiers are holding us [women] back.”

The linguist Deborah Tannen accurately points to the double bind that women currently exist within, “When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way. But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” This policing of women’s language and communication, wherein they are told to tuck-in their ‘just-s’ and ‘like-s’, not engage in upspeak (turning declarative sentences into questions), and to reduce their vocal fry (a way of speaking in which the voice is very low-pitched and has a characteristic rough or creaking sound), is one of the many sexist cultural enforcements women have to endure. Tannen adds, both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ way of speaking do not guarantee the authority that women desire in any relationship (personal, professional or social).

Linguists contend that language, apart from its role in making an argument, or relaying information, also helps in building relationships. To say that women are undermining themselves by use of certain qualifiers is to say that women are undermining themselves by being themselves. That the glass ceiling and the pay gap exists today even when women have been trying to do everything propounded (from changing their language to self-presentation) to get ahead is enough to understand that the ‘problem’ exists beyond women.

Privilege works in interesting ways. Even though Schumann’s research showed that both women and men considered apologies to have positive outcomes and that they were willing to apologize wherever necessary, it was also found that “men were less likely to believe they could be wrong.”

Does this mean that difference in power, socio-cultural influences, personality, and status, influence some individuals and groups to believe they are more likely to be wrong, and hence more apologetic? Schumann mentions in her research work done by Geert Hofstede and by Markus H R & Kitayama S stating this could be true– “Cross-cultural research provides some support for the influence of interdependence on judgments of offense severity and apology likelihood. Individuals living in interdependent, collectivistic cultures—cultures that emphasize the preservation of relationship harmony and the pursuit of group interests tend to prefer dispute minimizing tactics such as negotiation, bargaining, and apologies, to a greater extent than individuals from individualistic cultures.” The same was true for couples in romantic relationships, where women and men were sensitive to the “preservation of relationship harmony”.

Perhaps, this is the way forward. Maybe instead of asking women to be “less sensitive” and asking men to be “more sensitive”, if we diffused the unequal distribution of power and replaced it with sensitivity and interdependence, creating smaller communities (homes, institutions, workplaces, public spaces) where interdependence is celebrated and acts as a “potential remedy for the gender difference in severity thresholds.” Perhaps then, apology can be removed of its unnecessary connotations.


  1. Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?, Ann Friedman | The Cut, July 2015 (https://www.thecut.com/2015/07/can-we-just-like-get-over-the-way-women-talk.html)
  2. Contrite Makes Right, Deborah Tannen | 1999, p.67-70 (https://static1.squarespace.com/contrite+makes+right.pdf)
  3. Crap Apps and Female Email, Debbie Cameron | Language: A Feminist Guide. December 2015 (https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/crap-apps-and-female-email/)
  4. Culture and the Self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation, Markus H R & Kitayama S | Psychological Review, 1991 (http://www.umich.edu/~psychol/381/markus.pdf)
  5. Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Nicholas Tavuchis | 1991 (http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=3130)
  6. National cultures revisited, Geert Hofstede | Behaviour Science Research, 1983 (http://geerthofstede.com/geert-hofstede-biography/publications/)
  7. Sorry to ask but… do women apologize more than men?, Kelly Wallace | CNN, June 2014 (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/26/living/women-apologize-sorry-pantene-parents/index.html)
  8. Study Reveals Why Women Apologize So Much, Rachael Rettner | Live Science, September 2010 (https://www.livescience.com/8698-study-reveals-women-apologize.html)
  9. Telling Women to Apologize Less Isn’t About Empowerment. It’s About Shame, Jessican Grose | The Washington Post, January 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/04/sorry-language-shamers-but-women-just-dont-need-your-new-email-policing-app/?utm_term=.26a9416e0f77)
  10. When and Why Women Apologize More than Men, Karina Schumann | UWSpace: Waterloo’s Institutional Repository, 2011 (https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/5998/Schumann_Karina.pdf)
  11. When Do You Owe an Apology? Depends on Gender | Association for Psychological Science, March 2011 (https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/when-do-you-owe-an-apology-depends-on-gender.html#.WWyIc4SGPIU)
  12. Why Women Apologize and Should Stop, Sloane Crosley | The New York Times, June 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/opinion/when-an-apology-is-anything-but.html)
  13. Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize, Sady Doyle | Elle, April 2017 (http://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/news/a44528/why-men-are-so-bad-at-apologizing/)

I Want to Scream Too.

“Ste-llaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” A desperate Stanley Kowalski, played by the inimitable Marlon Brando, in a ripped t-shirt bellows the name in remorse, in the unforgettable scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), adapted into a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Today, at the end of the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, contestants line up to honour the characters Stanley and Stella and the legendary Tennessee Williams in a Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. In 2011, actor and author Elena Passarello became the first woman in the history of the festival to win the contest.

I want to scream too.

In that attempt, I have immersed my head inside water, in a locked bathroom. First, I open my eyes, to take in the blue of the bucket, in imitation of a natural body of large water. I open my mouth, parting the lips to an inch distance, and let a small, preparatory scream. The first scream is timed to three seconds, but is immediately subsumed within the sound of the air bubbles. I wait for the water to become still before the second scream; this one is timed to five seconds, and is deep from the chest unlike the first, which remains at the level of the throat. The last scream comes from a deeper place, the abdomen pushes the diaphragm up, and is timed against the air remaining in my lungs. By this time, the air coming to the surface is rapturous but violent, and loud. I can hear the sound of my scream inside water; it feels linear, at least to me, but I can also hear the air throwing the water against my ears, in waveforms.

I scream underwater because I cannot scream above its surface, at least not in the one-layer brick-walled apartment that I live in, in the urban neighbourhood. When I try to scream, I use my body, but refrain from letting the sound out. Only air is thrust outwards but, without the sound the body reverberates uncontrollably. In that state, the wide-opened jaw aligns itself with my opened chest, and the arms extend in an arch. The hands form claws and fists, morphing into non-human limbs. I don’t look beautiful when I am in this pose, but I look strong. When my lungs have deflated and begin breathing again, I become aware of pain – raw pain – at the points where the jaws meet, and in my chest.

Unlike Passarello, who is a trained voice-artist, and who performed “Stella!” in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival for confronting her fear, I scream for releasing the potential energy that builds in my chest, over a period of time. This usually happens after subsequent events in which I have to perform a role, uncharacteristic or undesired. On the contrary, I also feel this hauling energy after long periods of silence. For these reasons, I believe I scream as much for physical restoration as much as for reclaiming power. Passarello, in an interview to the Harper’s Magazine blog, says about her experience,

“My own take on “Stella!” for the contest arose from a very silly exercise in confronting fear. I was terrified to do it for a few reasons: I hadn’t performed seriously for several years; I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to control the noise that came out of my mouth; and I worried it would be puny and therefore embarrassing. I had to force myself to go through with it, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t made a promise to my publisher. There was also something about being a female out there, making the Stella noise, that added some pressure related to reassigning the sound to a female body. I knew that whatever bellow came out of my mouth would be either unladylike or un-Stanley-like, and that lose-lose situation terrified me.”

In her book Let Me Clear My Throat, Passarello has essays and interviews collected around the human voice, as a poetic synaesthesia, tracing people who used the “untapped sonic pockets” across culture and time. One of her essays dedicated to the phenomenal Judy Garland, allows the reader to experience her Carnegie Hall 1963 concert, its acoustics, and the experience of the audience who had access to her performance. In the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Power of the Pen: Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction, Passarello shares, comparing Carnegie Hall as a human womb,

“I thought about the idea of the womb as this sonic space, this music hall, and then I thought about the idea of Judy completely rocking this music hall… And then I started researching the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, how sound travels there. If you are sitting in the womb of that hall, which you can do today and you could do in 1963 and you could do 100 years before, what the sound does to the body that’s sitting there… what was happening to the bodies of the people that didn’t just watch her, but heard her and felt her…”

When I started my own research about sound, I reached an interesting TED talk by the artist Christine Sun Kim called The Enchanting Music of Sign Language. Kim was born deaf, and like many of us with the hearing ability, was taught to believe “sound wasn’t a part of my [deaf] life.” According to her, sound, like money, control, and power, is social currency, and determines what status one can hold in the society. Sound, could determine, whether a person is empowered or disempowered, especially in an audio-centric world like the one we live in.

On a trip to Berlin, in an art residency program, Kim discovered galleries and museums filled with auditory art, and challenged by this, decided to bring sound and music into her own art space. Here she found parallels between the American Sign Language (ASL) and music. ASL, much like sound, can be captured on a piece of paper; she says, “ASL is more like a chord – all 10 fingers need to come down simultaneously [as on the piano] to express a clear concept.” From here, she transcribed ASL, as one would transcribe music, on a sheet of paper, visualizing signs into images, ideas, and as movements of the body. “All day”, in ASL, if seen as visual music would look like this:

Image result for christine sun kim art
Art by Christine Sun Kim | Photo by Erica Leone

At the end of her talk, Kim implores her audience, to think “about what defines social currency and allow ASL to develop its own form of currency – without sound. And this could possibly be a step to lead to a more inclusive society. And maybe people will understand that you don’t need to be deaf to learn ASL, nor do you have to be hearing to learn music.” Inspired by Kim, I drew my own scream, when underwater, if it appeared on a music sheet:

Drawing (1)
Scream, Underwater

My final research drew me to the deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who lost most of her hearing by age 12, and who after auditioning twice for Royal Academy of Music in London was accepted. Her acceptance into the institution opened doors for people with all forms of physical disabilities to be considered as equal to any other application, and “changed the whole role of the music institutions throughout the United Kingdom.” In her TED talk How to Truly Listen, Glennie inspires us to listen to sound as she listens to it, truly, and with her entire body. She recalls a memory with her teacher, “Well, I think I do too [listen with ears], but I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on.”

Demonstrating the use of her body, and the mallets on a marimba, Glennie helps us visualize what participation in sound could feel like. And, this is where it gets interesting because she communicates how inclusion would help us experience this world in a holistic way. She takes the example of how the inclusion of the deaf community in music institutions has allowed acousticians discussing about the type of halls they could install, the one, which could deliver enriched experience similar to the Carnegie Hall. The tiniest, faintest of sound, which is actually quite broad, without the need of cosmetic enhancement in a hall, would reach the audience as it is. That could make us, the ones who can hear, participators of sound much more than what we are today.

Glennie is convincing about the body being our own indigenous resonating chamber. So I tried to listen with my body. While typing a text message this morning, I witnessed the movement of my thumbs, as if they were trained to a particular music that my mind did not know of, an invisible sheet of music. Experimenting with it further, I took the phone near to my ear, while continuing to tap with the thumbs. The result, even though the text itself had multiple errors, was a state of resonance, proximity, and meditative attention almost resembling joy.

As an ambivert, identified with the introvert-side of the personality spectrum, I navigate the world of sound and silence, where sound is mostly noise, and silence is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. So I try to create my own islands where I can experience them both. In the 2012, Paris Review interview, Passarello shares that humans have these sonic pockets that allow sound responses to different kinds of mortal peril. Unfortunately, in the modern world, even though it is more audio-centric, many of these sonic pockets have become untapped, primarily because “we just don’t have the occasions to use these places anymore, now that we’re warm and safe and bipedal.”

It may be that we are no longer in a mortal peril, we are in a different kind of peril, a culture which promotes only one model of personhood, which makes inclusivity and reclaiming sound and silence more important. Passarello writes in the interview, “the voice itself does not really exist—it is not a designated body part at all, aside from those two miniscule cords behind our epiglottis. Every other part of the complicated vocal mechanism is a ridiculous bit of evolutionary thievery. We literally stole our voice from other body parts—the organs that help us breathe, eat, and support our skulls. It’s a fact—we only speak because we had to, and we literally re-wired ourselves to meet that burning need for self-expression.”

I believe, in any art or skill, whether with sound or with silence, we are trying to recompense this “burning need for self-expression”. For many of us, it is certainly for me, it is also taking claim of the voice mechanism. It simply means allowing the choice of sound and of silence on the person, the participator; thereby, treating both, sound-screams underwater and soundless-screams above water, as empowerment.

Bahadur Shah Zafar: The Last Mughal

In The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, the writer, historian William Dalrymple takes the reader, without delay, to November 7, 1862. It is evening, when a corpse distinctly enshrouded in white is buried in a grave, and after a hastened recitation of funeral prayers, mud thrown over, before laying down the turf. There was no tombstone, the grave left intentionally unmarked, to ensure the dead man remained unrecalled and lost. Had there been an engraved tombstone, it would have identified the buried and would have read: Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar, ex-King of Delhi, Died at Rangoon on 7 November 1862. Zafar, as Bahadur Shah Zafar II was popularly known, was The Last Mughal.

Image result for bahadur shah zafar
Bahadur Shah Zafar II

Dalrymple writes in the introduction about the book, “as a portrait of the Delhi [Zafar] personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857.” More importantly, it documents the events as they happened before 1857, during the four months when Delhi was under siege, and in the months following the surrender of Zafar. Zafar and his beloved city, embroiled in what came to be known as The First War of Independence, bore the ambitions of those who surrounded him, Indian and British. When it became clear that Delhi would fall to the British, Zafar, a mystic by nature, crossed the Yamuna to reach the holy shrine of Nizamuddin, to deliver the most precious of Mughal relics for safekeeping to the pirzadas (officials at a Sufi shrine). He cried:

“My forefathers have had worse days than these and they never lost heart. But I have read the writing on the wall. I see with my own eyes the fast approaching tragedy which must end the glory of my dynasty. Now there is not a shadow of doubt left that of the great House of Timur I am the last to be seated on the throne of India. The lamp of Mughal dominion is fast burning out; it will remain but a few hours more. Since I know this, why should I cause more bloodshed? For this reason I left the Fort. The country belongs to God. He may give it to whomsoever he likes.”

Zafar is not as popular as some of his other ancestors, the reasons vary; but primarily point to his failure in leading the Rebels to victory against the British in 1857, and for allowing the fall of the Indo-Islamic civilization, which once reigned supreme. He was also blamed, at the time of the Revolt, for being indecisive, incapable and infirm. But we forget Zafar’s Delhi as the city of cultural renaissance – where poets, artists, architects, and writers thronged, presented, and were celebrated for their gifts and talents. Zafar, himself a poet, calligrapher, and a mystic promoted learning among other things in his court, and allowed for debates and mushairas (poetic symposiums).

More importantly, Zafar’s rule marked the epitome of religious tolerance, communal harmony, and prosperity, next only to Akbar’s. The court diaries from these years account for his genuine understanding and his willingness to uphold the fabric of his city – the co-existence of Hindus and Muslims. To this, he remained committed even during the revolt. In one well-documented incident, near Bakr `Id, when some Ghazis from Tonk, Rajasthan declared they would sacrifice a cow in front of Jama Masjid, tensions arose when five Muslims were murdered by Hindu sepoys, holding them accountable for cow killing. Zafar, born of a Hindu mother, understood well the necessity of Hindus and Muslims to live in harmony, as they had until the Rebels marched into Delhi. Following the murders, “Zafar banned the butchery of cows, forbade the eating of beef and authorized for anyone found killing a cow the terrible punishment of being blown from a cannon.”

He did not stop at this and “issued an order that all the town’s cows should be registered, with chaukidars and sweepers of the different muhallas instructed to report to the local police station all ‘cow-owning Muslim households’ and for each police thana then to make out a list ‘of all the cows being bred by the followers of Islam’ and send it to the Palace.” He also directed that the registered cows should be sheltered in the city’s central police station; but because of logistic-related issues, settled on signed bonds from the cow owners that they will not sacrifice their cattle. Bakr `Id in August 1857 passed peacefully. In the context of the modern day, where the cow has once again become a contentious issue, suspicion/reason enough to lynch and murder Muslims, Zafar’s actions may be seen as populist, appeasing, and undemocratic. However, the fact that a Muslim Emperor, even in his relative powerlessness, rose to protect the interests of one-half of his subjects [at the time] should not go unnoticed.

Dalrymple confirms what India has become today, “The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilization championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal emperors has only a limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India.” Although there are countless, well-preserved documents, not just in India, but in Lahore and Yangon, where one can delve into the history of India under the last of the Mughals and after him, only the British propaganda has continued to exist as the official history, and in some cases, as the absolute truth. At an individual level, maybe Hindus and Muslims can still co-exist, as they always have, but at the level of the politics, the distance has only been furthered. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the political climate in the recent years, infused with riots, disbelief, murders, and ill-will rise not only from history, but also from distortion of history and its false reinterpretation.

Zafar’s grave, lost in the annals of cruel history, was found in 1991 and placed inside a shrine. Today, visitors go to him, to seek this mystic pir’s (a Sufi saint) blessings and to remember him. Like Zafar, perhaps one day, the lost threads in the great fabric of the city and the country can be found and restored. As Zafar himself writes,

“The heart distressed, the wounded flesh,
The mind ablaze, the rising sigh;
The drop of blood, the broken heart,
Tears on the lashes of the eye.
But things cannot remain, O Zafar,
Thus for who can tell?
Through God’s great mercy and the Prophet
All may yet be well.”