It's often been said that I speak softly. Sometimes too softly.
During a recent monthly meeting, my manager suggested I add "speaking more loudly" to my performance objectives this year. I laughed at his joke. He didn't. Apparently he has a really hard time hearing me.
It's not that I'm not capable of speaking loudly ... those who know me will attest to that. I can turn it up for a presentation, bring it up a notch if I'm particularly passionate about something, and really crank it up to "smart" volume if I've got a glass or two of vino in me. And let's just say that my fifth repeat of a simple instruction to kiddo is pretty much guaranteed to register at 115 decibels.
But in general, I am a "soft-talker".
Strangely enough, I come from a very loud family. I am the youngest of 5 siblings, all of whom have no trouble at all making themselves heard. My father has a booming voice; my mother is from a family of 18 kids who don't realize the neighbors don't have to be party to every discussion from across the way. My constant complaint growing up was that I could never finish a sentence without someone in my family cutting me off. The response was usually "Well, speak up if you want to be heard!"
I worked as a consultant for a number of years. That job required quite a bit of workshop facilitation. After my first experience facilitating, I was given training on assertive communication. One of the exercises was to deliver a speech at one end of a 150 foot corridor to a single audience member seated at the other end. Another was to practice delivery of speeches in a room by myself facing a mirror. I have to admit the exercises were very useful, and really did help me identify many of my quirks.
They also helped me to focus specifically on how my voice carries when presenting to a roomful of people. I'm a much more confident and 'vocal' speaker as a result. I am not afraid to speak up in a meeting, I don't get nervous facilitating a group, my voice doesn't tremble when addressing a crowd, and in general I remember to speak loudly and clearly. But I still always preface a presentation with "If you're having trouble hearing me, please don't hesitate to make a sign or ask me to speak up."
Despite all this insight and focus, I still have moments when my voice seems to leave me. These tend to be (a) when I am speaking to a smaller audience, (b) about to say something I fear is controversial or likely to be met with resistance, (c) standing too close to someone and concerned about my breath ~, or (d) trying to be a gentle disciplinarian.
The irony is that it is usually in all of those moments (well, except 'c' perhaps) that I should be displaying my strongest, loudest voice as a show of confidence and bravado. But there is an instinct in me that quiets my external voice as soon as my internal voice starts to boom. Many times in those situations I will have to repeat my convictions, and inevitably my voice will get stronger and louder as I do so. It's as if the more times I say something, the more my vocal chords are prepared to work with me; as if my brain has to convince them through repetition.
But I must say that in some instances, particularly here in the ME, my teeny tiny voice has served me very well. In general, to a non-Arabic speaker, Arabic can sound like a loud, rather harsh language, making my voice seem even smaller than it is. Whether in jest, in small talk or in serious conversation, Arabs most always seem to be arguing, particularly to the unaccustomed ear of one who has not been in the ME for any length of time. I'm certain that initially my quiet voice has come across to some as subservient or docile, which is most definitely not the case.
As a woman working in an extremely male-dominated society, my "soft" hard approach has allowed me a gradual entry into internal business dealings and relationships without resorting to outright confrontation or abject humiliation. A colleague once said to me "I don't think I've ever been told to 'f' off so gently or eloquently." Another was reminiscing over a past dispute we'd had and said "I was actually a few miles down the road before I realized I'd agreed to the exact thing I'd told myself I'd never agree to."
This morning was an example of my teeny tiny voice failing me. This most often happens at home, as was the case today. I repeatedly, firmly, and quietly told my daughter that I had placed some supplies for an after-school-activity in the outside pocket of her bag. I asked her if she would remember. Over Cheerios and hair braiding she assured me she would. I could have sworn she'd heard.
Yet as soon as I picked her up from the school yard, she cried out in front of her monitor that I had neglected to pack her supplies in her bag! Sighhhhhh ....
I could have sworn that calm, reassuring, patient, teeny tiny voice in me had roared that morning. But like more and more mornings lately, it would appear I was on 'mute' when speaking to kiddo. Apparently my delivery still needs a lot of work.