Voices of authority

Yesterday a dear grad school friend asked me for some feedback on some writing. I marked typos and left comments, asked questions and all of the usual editing stuff. And I wrote her a note about her composition, trying to find the right words to say that the writing was fine but the message was weak: she was using the wrong voice.

My friend had written in her usual humble voice, but she needed to use her authoritative voice. For myself (and my mom), I call it the Teacher Voice.1 For my friend, it's probably a Teacher Voice, too, but it's also her Lab Manager Voice; the one I've heard her use when people come up to her desk with questions and needs. When she uses that voice, she is decisive and assertive. Everyone listens to that voice.

Another grad friend of mine tends to preface her questions with "I could be wrong about this, but …" She's an expert at what she does, but her everyday voice is not her Authority Voice.2

I worry that my friends and I are short-changing ourselves when we do not use our Authority Voices as our public voices. We want to be fair and supportive, and so we give everyone else credit and take little ourselves. We recognize the limits of our knowledge, and so we frame our questions and comments as expeditions beyond our ken. We avoid letting others assume we know more than we do, and I think we instead let them believe we know less.

Ladies, I think we need to put on our Teacher Voices, our Expert Voices, our Authority Voices and say it like we see it. We can thank the folks who have helped us and acknowledge fortuitous opportunities, but we need to take credit for the things we've accomplished and the expertise we've built. Our mentors aren't the ones earning PhDs; they have their own already. We're the ones doing experiments, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, teaching classes, training lab members, reading the literature, writing proposals, building equipment, making connections, presenting results, earning that PhD. We are experts. We should treat ourselves like it.

1: When I was a kid, I wondered how my mother could make a noisy group of people stop and listen without needing to shout. Now I know her secret: Teacher Voice.

2: Meanwhile, three men come immediately to mind who deliver every statement with an overabundance of confidence. They're using their Authority Voices all the time.