I have a naturally loud voice. Just…loud. As a kid I could never automatically speak in an “inside voice”; it always required conscious modulation. I constantly got told, “Be quieter! Talk quieter! Use your ‘inside voice’!” Constant, unending admonitions to “be quieter” when I simply used the voice God gave me.
It constantly frustrated me. I wanted to behave and yet I always failed at this despite doing nothing actually wrong. Being constantly corrected for my natural voice just made me feel broken in some way. Obviously I could not articulate that at the time, but it wears on a person to constantly hear that they have to change something inherent about themselves to fit into the requirements for a particular group.
(Sound familiar? Judging a person based on their inherent qualities? Trying to correct and punish away the way God made a person?)
As I grew up and matured, I figured out how to “automatically” modulate my volume to a situationally-appropriate level. I quote “automatically” because any time I would get excited, get frustrated, get anything other than normal, that modulation would disappear and my natural volume level would come back. And someone would always pop up to make sure I know I got “too loud” and I needed “be quieter.”
I experienced this well into adulthood. Occasionally my loud voice would benefit me – I always enjoyed public speaking and, for a time, theater, two areas my strong voice served as a boon – but usually I had to consciously make sure my voice never got too loud. And I failed constantly; I could never verbally communicate “behind the scenes” in a play without someone hearing me that should not hear me.
Oh, and you cannot convince people you are shy and self-conscious when you always have a strong voice. Unless I actively have tears streaming out of my eyes, my voice does not waiver. I get anxious and nervous, and I feel the physical manifestations of those emotions, but my voice does not show it.
Seminary did something magical for me: it made my voice good. Not to say the majority of people wanted to hear my words or my opinions, but my physical voice suddenly became an actual asset to my life and ministry. I can speak in front of a group of people in my natural voice – at its natural volume – and those people can generally hear and understand me without a microphone.
Despite that, though, I still had people tell me that I needed to “be quieter.” Honestly, any time I get excited, someone will tell me I am too loud because the volume modulation still goes away when I focus on my excitement instead of my properness.
I am 32 years old. I have been ordained for nearly two years, graduated from seminary for six years, and I still have friends and colleagues tell me I am too loud whenever I get excited.
I recently had this happen three times in the course of a month, and I realized how much it hurts to get excited and have someone, every time, tell you that you are too loud.
One has stuck with me and probably why I spent time thinking about it. I went to a retreat and learning program (CREDO for Presbyterian and Episcopal folks) and one of the facilitators gave an amazing sermon. I think everything happened the next evening during fellowship with drinks. The facilitator was immediately behind me at a different table and the conversation around my table moved to how great of a sermon she gifted us with.
I wanted to tell her and had not had a chance to, so I turned around in my excitement and, with my unmodulated voice – excitement and a couple of drinks contributing – went to tell her that I really appreciated her sermon.
Obvious my loud voice startled her because…well, because and I cannot judge anyone for my voice and mannerisms startling them. The comment made was, “How does it feel to be yelled at by a bearded, white man?”
I simply wanted to tell a colleague that I appreciated the gift of her sermon and instead I became a bearded white man yelling at an Asian woman.
I do not necessarily begrudge anyone for how it played out – I am also awkward and having my unmodulated voice unexpectedly put in your direction is probably startling – but it hurts when you get told that your expression of excitement is unacceptable and every verbalized moment of excitement or energy gets deflated.
I try to tell myself I love my voice. When I step into a pulpit – physical or metaphorical – I do not worry about the physical voice that needs to come from within me. People understand the words that come out of my mouth. I have never lost my physical voice.
But I actually find myself hating it more than loving it. I hate that my frustration and exacerbation get heard as rage and fury. I hate that I cannot verbalize my excitement and actually speak into my energy. I hate that I am 32 years old and I still do not have a quiet enough voice for my friends and colleagues. I hate that I have to modulate my voice in every conversation, even if I can do it automatically 80% of the time.
And I hate having a loud voice when I simply want to be heard in a conversation and not seen as trying to dominate the conversation, and I want people to understand that my soul’s voice often refuses to speak.
If I can offer an aside: when a child loudly brings you their excitement, maybe we find a way to just focus on the excitement instead of deflating it to reduce its physical volume. I do not think you need to allow kids to scream, but some kids just have a loud voice and telling them that their natural voice is bad will follow them into their adulthood.
Just a thought.