To begin, I’ll describe my voice. I’ve listened to myself, both as I speak and in recordings, and my observations are as follows: I read sentences flatly, dryly; the ends of each word sink into the following word; my voice itself is quiet, with an occasionally elevated pitch aligning with my own excitement.
There’s a surprising sharpness that comes with sounding like this. When I speak, I voice my thoughts; I allow my opinions to be heard. When I speak, I also expose myself. I allow myself to be judged based on my voice, the cadence of my speech, and my inflection. Immaterial—just sound—the voice renders the speaker visible. Listening to myself speak, I am reflected back at myself, sharply defined in relief of the normal smoothness with which I live my life and with which I speak.
Columbia, nested in the larger New York City, serves as home to a chorus of individuals, voices journeyed from a myriad of backgrounds. Due to the number of people here, we are often left to make cursory judgments about others based on superficial factors. The voice becomes an easy measure of one’s personality. The accent one uses points to a geographic background; the emphasis, captured through inflection, suggests personal interests; the cadence suggests gender identity or sexuality. These measures are not infallible—in fact, they might reinforce deeply problematic assumptions. Yet, there is an ease to making assumptions based on one another’s speech which makes the inundation of people at Columbia, in New York, more feasible.
There is, in fact, something about my voice that speaks to me and who I am. While I am not my voice, my voice is a consequence of me. When I speak, the voice you hear is shaped by my experiences, my past and future woven into the sonic texture of my words. While making these quick judgments may lead to imprecise observations, for me, these facets of my voice speak truth. The flat, dry intonation reflects a habituated practice of ironing out my voice, to present my ideas as interesting in themselves, or to capture a sardonic and blasé attitude. The sinking of each word into the next, the lilt and upswing rounding each phrase is suggestive of my queerness. I have a neutral accent—when I speak, I can be placed as being from the United States, maybe from Virginia, but not with great precision. Assumptions can be drawn from my speech, but for me these assumptions are correct.
Understanding my voice as something revealing, disclosing information about myself through my intonation and cadence, I would quiet myself so as to remain anonymous. In seminars, I have been told to “speak up.” I viewed being asked to “speak up” not as a vocal failure, however, but as my conscious attempt to mask myself through keeping my voice quiet. I would speak, but simultaneously seek to mute myself. My desire to mask myself in silence is not out of shame over what my voice highlights about me; I did not, for example, mean to hide my voice for its queer subtleties. Rather, this move to keep quiet, to speak softly, would be to counteract the sharpness of my voice, to camouflage myself—not my voice—in with the larger chorus, to render myself invisible.
However, if speaking locates and draws out information about the speaker, the paradox of staying silent welcomes other judgment, based on non-vocalized action. My physical appearance, my clothes, my punctuality: These become the measures of equally quick, equally fallible judgments on the part of my peers. It is through speaking, through voicing one’s thoughts, that assumptions can be tempered. Through harnessing the words in speech, I present my ideas. In exposing my voice to others, I offer myself as something other than an assemblage of visual characteristics and superficial observations.
I was taken aback after listening to myself on a WBAR recording. I wasn’t, as one might expect, surprised to hear myself played back to me—as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I know how I sound to myself and others. I was taken aback because I didn’t mind the sound of my voice—because, disembodied and talking about the things I found interesting (bad music), I did not feel the need to quiet or mask myself.
Hearing myself and not minding the sound of my voice, then, is to be comfortable with being visible. New York, in its chaotic and unruly streets, presents a cacophony in which, amid all its noise, I can learn—and have learned—to embrace myself and my voice. My dry speech, my lilting words can be hardened beneath, or acclimated to, the sound of the subway. I can adjust to the sounds of the city and “speak up” unfettered—speak up with self-assuredness.
I am not my voice. I maintain that statement. But my voice is mine, and it speaks to me, so I’ll hold on to it.
Sam Wilcox is a senior in Columbia College studying English. To listen to recordings of his voice, you can reach out to email@example.com; he can no longer find recordings of his WBAR disk-jockey days, though.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.