A week ago I went to my book agent’s no-reason-but-anyway party at the Groucho (the first, and in many ways the least pretentious of the London media clubs) – it was a hot night, the wine was nicely chilled and the canapés were very good. Miniature smoked salmon bagels. Yum.
And there I was chatting perfectly happily to my agent and her husband and her husband’s mother and a bunch of other writers, many of whom I know well, others less well, all of us shouting to some degree as the room filled up and the alcohol flowed and we all got noisier and harder to hear. It was all very pleasant. Until …
I was talking to a man I’ve met a couple of times before. I don’t know him well, have talked a little more to his wife, they’re both writers, I always thought they were perfectly nice people. Then, halfway through something one of us was saying to the other, he interrupted either me or himself to say - "It's hard to hear your New Zealand accent, it's high-pitched ... Can you talk lower?"
As I said, it was very noisy. We were all shouting a bit. This bloke – my age, 40’s, London, (not obviously the kind of upper class twat who thinks it’s fine to tell people who aren’t like him that they’re shit), not obviously anything other than a perfectly nice enough ordinary bloke - thought it was a normal request. He didn't know he was being massively feminist-ly AND Antipodean-ly offensive.
And for the first time in all these (twenty) years living here, I made it clear. I was hurt. It was an astonishing thing to say.
It was rude. It is rude. Maybe (some) NZ women have a generally higher register than (some) UK women. And MAYBE (check it out, I think I'm right) the NZ women who are more successful in NZ TV and radio and theatre have a generally lower register than some of the rest of the NZ women, but there's something very sexist in assuming a 'deeper' voice in a woman (ie. more masculine!) is of more value and therefore easier to listen to. It happens here too, all the time. The plethora of women presenting UK TV news and docs with low Scottish accents, as opposed to a higher range Liverpool accent for example. The deep and dulcet tones of Jenni Murray who presents Radio 4’s flagship programme Woman’s Hour. All these women with lower voices than most women. Why? Because it’s better to sound less female? Because even now, in 2006, we STILL prefer male tones to female ones? Ah, that Women’s Lib was such a nice idea …
So, that’s the feminist point dealt with (we never had it, post-feminism came too soon, we’ve got a bloody long way to go yet), but what about the Antipodean one? What about being told my NZ accent is ‘hard to hear’?!
In fact, the aforementioned nice man was politely embarrassed when I pointed out how rude he was being. He didn’t mean to be, he was a bit pissed, it just came out. He thought he was being funny anyway. And in the old days I might have just gone along with him, but I'm bored with that. It's the UK. Now. I’ve been here twenty years. This country is full of accents, scores of its own and hundreds from other countries. And I know I have (according to most listeners, a good many of them who’ve heard me on the radio, which always picks up on individual foibles) a fairly middling hard-to-place accent, a bit London, a bit NZ, a bit general-Antipodean for most UK listeners, who can’t usually tell the difference between New Zealand and Australian voices anyway. (And in truth, after all this time, I get it wrong sometimes too.) I know most of my NZ mates think I sound like a poncey Englishwoman until I’ve been with them a few hours and had a few wines and my now-rounded vowels un-round themselves. It happens, voices change, I’ve been in London a long time, I live with a woman raised here, accents rub off on us.
And yet that (nice) bloke STILL thought it was OK to be have a go about an Antipodean accent when he would NEVER be rude about ... I don't know, almost any other accent (other than Texan) on the planet. Because our voices are who we are. Because my voice is ME. And that’s why it hurts when someone criticises or mocks my voice. Because it’s how we communicate on the most intimate level. We speak, we whisper, we are – hopefully - listened to and understood.
I think one of the main reasons they (the rest of the world) think it’s fine to be rude about our NZ/kiwi/Aotearoan voices is that they assume our NZ/Oz-ness means we're classless, that our voices don’t define us in terms of class or income the way they perceive theirs to do. I’ve noticed, especially in Britain and the rest of Europe (not in the US where they often still don’t know who we are!), there is an assumption that we all had Brady Bunch family lives, and our childhoods and upbringings were all sweet and simple, with a lot of spare cash for barbies thrown in. Except that certainly wasn’t my Tokoroa-in-the-70's experience, and I doubt it was the experience of very many other NZers from anywhere other than the wealthier parts of the main cities. But hey, the night after this party I had dinner with a woman from an enormously successful Sydney family who was telling us that Australia and New Zealand had "no class structure" and we’re all the same and all come from a level playing field. Yeah. Sure we do. And that probably is what you believe if you grow up with a view of Sydney harbour from your back yard. But it’s not quite how I felt when I arrived in Wellington in 1981 and was (for the first but not the last time) laughed at by the well-dressed, monied girls from Fendalton and Remuera and Khandallah for my 'kiwi' accent.
We judge, they judge, everyone does it the second any of us open our mouths. The British and mainland Europeans with their regional and class variations, and ‘at home’ with our urban/rural and Pakeha/Maori/Pacific divides. But just because we all do it, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous, and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And it also doesn’t mean there isn’t still something horribly insidious about suggesting that a male northern hemisphere voice is easier to understand than a female southern one. (Yeah, that Tony Blair, rather listen to him than Helen Clark any day …)
© Stella Duffy 2006