The Voice Behind the Words

The term written voice refers in writing instruction to the personality a writer presents through the wording, phrasing, and construction of the language we are reading. I say personality deliberately, because it is not so much a question of knowing who the author is in actual, personal detail, but rather of discerning another human being present in relationship to certain ideas being communicated. This is important because we are readier to trust others who are frank and open, and that in turn determines how likely we are to accept and act on what they are saying—the very reason writers write.

Take, for example, this government notice I spied recently, posted on the window of a restaurant:

Notice to Consumers: Please communicate any food allergies to an employee of this establishment and that employee shall communicate that food allergy information to the Person In Charge or Certified Food Protection Manager on duty at this establishment.

What could possibly be the intent of such forced and swollen language? That question has a real answer, and it has little to do with grammar and sentence construction. There is no grammatical error to be found in this notice (though the preposition in the phrase Person In Charge should not be capitalized), and so the cause of its distant, unnatural tone lies elsewhere, namely, in the writer’s interest not to speak simply, naturally, authentically as one human being to another. Its written voice is guarded and unnecessarily exact, and the result—the reason such over-written prose is worth considering—is ultimately to alienate readers. Who would run to jump into Kafka’s world?

It is not a question of who the writer is, but of who the writer wishes to be at this written moment. The well-known derivation of the words person and personality has a real lesson to teach us about one’s written voice. Both these words have their origin in the Latin word for an actor’s mask, the device which one sounded through (per + sona) on stage to become for a time the character one assumed oneself to be. And there is real truth in the idea which some psychologists and philosophers hold that circumstances call forth certain propensities we have gathered, and that who we might be in each scene of life we find ourselves in is much of our own choosing as we try to configure a balance of power.

So why would one choose to be cautious and guarded rather than open and affable? In part because we have convinced ourselves that we must first rely on authority, not cooperation, to be effective, to have a voice and be listened to. This notice wishes us as consumers to communicate, both good and effective words, of course, but in the context of this public statement they take on a legalistic tone which makes its readers cautious and guarded. The restaurant where I’m having breakfast has become an establishment, and what will unfold upon my communicating to an employee has been explained in detail more appropriate to an office procedures manual. All in an effort to be helpful, yes, but at a distance so far from human scale that the result is unnatural and off-putting.

What is common to any circumstance we might find ourselves in is our humanity, who we are in community with one another. We make that evident in our written voice, the modulations of which are multifarious, each changing the relationship between writer and reader. So perhaps instead of communicating any food allergy to the Certified Food Protection Manager, I should simply tell my server, and stay in the good and humble world of my local diner.


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