Language experts on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony — and how words impact if women are believed
Throughout her testimony during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford bravely spoke of the horrific incident of sexual assault she alleges she endured as a teenager. Her recount, as well as her answers to many questions from the senators, was told through a trembling voice. “I am terrified,” she said.
Countless American women empathized with Ford, as many — 1 in 3 women in the U.S. — have or will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.
But it wasn’t only Ford’s experience that resonated with women; it was the language she used during her testimony. Her words echoed the way many women have been socialized to speak — carefully, courteously, deferring to others. For the entirety of the trial, Ford was beyond polite. “I’m used to being collegial,” she said early on in the testimony.
We spoke to language experts about these subtle techniques — some likely intended, other perhaps unintentional — in Ford’s testimony.
When Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked if she would like Mark Judge — a classmate Ford said was present at the time of the alleged sexual assault — to testify, she replied, “That would be my preference. I’m not sure it’s really up to me.”
“She’s mitigating the power of the things she’s saying in particular moments, though the effect isn’t necessarily to make her not credible,” Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Pomona College, said in a phone interview. In this case, Ford is reminding the audience there is little chance she’d have power in deciding what happens next in the hearing.
Ford used what’s often casted as stereotypically feminine language, Holliday said. Throughout the testimony, Ford said she wishes she could be more helpful. She used the word “happy” to describe her willingness to take a polygraph, although the experience was stressful.
“Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is all of us,” writer Talia Jane tweeted. “What you’re watching is a portrait of how women must behave in every aspect of our lives.”
Ford’s audience — the homogenous display of white men pictured below —may have influenced the language she used throughout her testimony.
“There’s a challenge any time you’re speaking in a public forum as a female,” Melissa Baese-Berk, associate linguistics professor at the University of Oregon, said in a phone interview. “A lot of times you’re sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you’re overly emotional, you’re criticized for that. If you’re not emotional enough, you’re criticized for that, too.”
“What’s stereotypically viewed as being female language fits in with some of the cultural roles in our society that are more traditional gender roles,” Baese-Berk said. “Not being super direct might be an example of that.”
Ford was super direct, however, during one impactful moment of the trial. When asked what is her strongest memory associated with the incident, Ford was certain. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense,” she responded. As a scientist — a psychologist, more specifically — Ford is well-versed in the long-lasting, traumatic impact of experiences like her own. Her words revealed she has played the scene she described repeatedly in her head and, also, her understanding of how memory works.
“Politically and ideologically, people don’t like it when women sound too smart,” Holliday said. When Ford was asked why she had not told the story earlier, she said, “I brought it up in therapy, which seemed an appropriate place to deal with the sequelae of the assault.” In one sentence, she defends herself — therapy as a socially approved place to deal with trauma — followed by “sequelae,” a scientific term. The reason the science here adds to Ford’s credibility, Holliday said, is because it is sandwiched between language that is perceived as feminine.
To witness Ford’s language is painful for so many women, in part, because it mirrors the situation that led to this mess in the first place. The way Ford speaks is virtually antithetical to how many of the men in the room — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Kavanaugh, too — conducted themselves. Her language depicts the dichotomy of the expectations our society has for men and women — men take, women defend. This pattern of thought is just what a man projects when he feels it is justified to push a woman onto a bed and grope her without consent.
Who gets to be perceived as “credible”
Ford’s discourse is perceived as “credible,” as Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, not just because of the words she spoke and how she spoke them, but also, very importantly, because of what she looks like. When describing her speech as stereotypically feminine, Holliday noted the stereotype is that of a middle-class white woman. Analysts on CNN and NPR made similar comments, contrasting Ford with Anita Hill. “Earlier I heard a commentator on NPR talk about how unflappable Anita Hill was — which made her a less effective witness than an understandably emotional Dr. Ford,” Mic contributor Brittany Packnett tweeted.
“CNN pundit saying that Blasey-Ford’s testimony is more resonant [because] — unlike Anita Hill who projected strength and poise — Blasey-Ford projected vulnerability,” Gene Demby of NPR tweeted.
“We do know that the same speech and the same words and vocabulary are perceived differently depending on who’s saying them,” Baese-Berk said. “The perception is influenced not just by tone and voice.”
Anita Hill’s hearings in 1991 were different from Ford’s testimony in many ways, for many reasons. But if it were possible to align the two situations with no variables, and Hill was able to stick to a script like Ford’s, the outcome would still not have been the same.
“The trembling voice, the hedging, the apologizing — it wouldn’t have been seen as authentic. It would have been interpreted as incompetent,” Holliday said, adding that a doctor with two kids and a quiet life is the ultimate, respectable white woman. “It all boils down to the fact that our prejudices about race and gender influence what we hear in language.”
Correction: Oct. 1, 2018