The Cold Embrace

Something happened yesterday. Something which struck me down to my core. It was completely unexpected, and it shocked me in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. It was something so small, seemingly insignificant, yet it stuck with me all day.

While I certainly haven’t hidden my discomfort with my voice, it is something I haven’t really spent to much time on within these pages. It’s not that I haven’t written entire articles on my voice – I have – but I’ve refrained from publishing them.

So here’s what happened. I called security yesterday morning to notify them that I would be opening one of our datacenters. A fairly routine, mundane task. People often refer to me as sir on the phone, despite my name. It’s something I have grown accustomed to, and it doesn’t really bother me. I just ignore it and focus on the task at hand, understanding that the majority of people aren’t calling me sir maliciously.

But the gentlemen on the phone yesterday repeatedly ask me to clarify my name. As if he couldn’t believe what I was saying. In a rather defeated tone, he finally stated: “Your name is Emma? … Well … You’re clearly a man, so… whatever …”

I froze. I had never gotten this response before. I didn’t know how to react, what to say… I just froze. After a short silence, he let me know that I was clear to proceed and hung up. I was shocked. I am used to people being confused by my voice on the phone, but this dismissal of my existence loomed over me for the rest of the day.

I struggle with my voice. I feel it betrays me every time I speak. It’s something I have learned to live with, to deal with, but it’s ever-present.

Once I found myself alone in the cold embrace of the data center, I cried quietly as I replayed the conversation over and over in my head. I tried to rationalize it, and move on, but as the day went on it bothered me more with each passing minute.

That afternoon, I decided to talk to my manager regarding this incident. I don’t know that I want him to address this formally, and I am not asking anyone to be disciplined over this. However, I did feel the need to talk to someone. The conversation was actually rather interesting, which funnily didn’t really dawn on me until earlier this evening. Perhaps because I was trying to hold back my tears in his office.

I don’t recall the exact phrasing he used, but he stated that I shouldn’t feel betrayed by my voice and that it wasn’t my responsibility to change in order to make people accept me for who I am. He went on to give an example of an old girlfriend who was often mistaken for a man and stated that women have all sorts of voices, so people shouldn’t assume gender based on how someone sounds.

I have heard the last part several times before, and while I don’t disagree, I think it is perfectly normal for our brains to associate gender with the frequency of our voices. It’s in how we deal with people that live outside of our perceived norms that makes the difference.

The interesting part to me, however, was the bit about it not being my responsibility. I haven’t really looked at it from this perspective. Rationally this makes sense to me, emotionally, however, I am not sure I am there yet.