(This made more sense when I still had a preschooler.)

Adventures in Unsolicited Speech Interventions

New rule: Never trust the guy with the sewn-on smile.

In the Beginning was the Silent Word

As a child, it frustrated me when I spoke and people indicated they couldn’t hear me. I gather I was soft-spoken, but inside my head my voice didn’t seem quiet. So in order for me to obtain others’ “thumbs-up” on my volume, I had to speak at an amplitude that I perceived as yelling. Perhaps, I thought, this is why the Beaker Muppet always wears a frown. It’s saddening to speak and not be heard.

As I got older, this continued. In some cases I would overcompensate; once, in a drive-thru restaurant line, my brother laughed in the passenger seat, “You’re shouting into the speaker like you’re in a metal band!” I literally had no idea. I was just doing what I thought necessary to only give my order once.

I eventually came to terms that I would always need feedback when it came to the volume of my voice, to achieve a healthy balance between Beaker and someone who wears all black and eats bats. But then I started to have other trouble.

If English is my Second Language, What is My First?

In recent years, in conversations with my mother, she sometimes winces as if in pain and shouts, “What?! I can’t understand what you’re saying!” I take a deep, patient breath, and speak more loudly. “No,” she interrupts, “I can’t understand what you’re saying. You mumble!” I get agitated, thinking to myself that with her age comes hearing loss, and I probably shouldn’t take this too personally… my volume challenges aside, most likely this is at least half her problem.

But over time, people understand me less and less. I say something about someone named Don, and then watch as the conversation reflects that I have spoken about a woman.

“Wait,” I interrupt. “I said Don. A man.”

“A man named Dawn?”

“Yes. Don.”

“D-A-W-N. A man.”

“Wait! What?! No! D-O-N.”

“Ohhhh,” my conversation partner says. “You say Don just like Dawn.”

“It’s probably just because I grew up in 3 different midwestern states, and because I’m originally from Kentucky,” I reassure myself. “Who knows what dialects I’ve picked up over the years.”

Surrender of the Robots

Justify as I may, the robots have begun to concur about my apparent speech affliction.

One day I made a call to my credit card company about my bill. A confident robot attempted to handle my inquiry. After failed attempts to translate what I was telling “him”, he stammered falsely. “I—I—I’m sorry. I didn’t quite catch that. Can you repeat that again?”

So I repeated. And I heard more robot stammering, a mockery of my seeming disability. Eventually the robot voice just transferred my call to a live human, with whom I stood a better chance of communication.

And then, with my iPhone 4S, came Siri. Siri is so difficult for me to communicate with that she and I have called a truce. I mostly don’t bother her anymore. We’re like a married couple on the brink of divorce; we can’t have civil conversations anymore without raised voices or one of us metaphorically walking out of the room.

What follows is the worst argument Siri and I have had:

Me: New note, please.

Siri translation: You know, please.

Siri response: Knowledge is good.

[I try several times to correct the request, each time becoming increasingly frustrated at the fact that Siri cannot understand more than about one word of my speech. And finally…]

Siri response: There seems to be a problem, Madam.

[I argue]

Siri response: My mind is going, Madam. I can feel it. I can feel it.

Me: Sorry.

Siri response: That’s okay, Madam. Really.

I could hear the sympathy in her dialogue. I actually succeeded in obtaining AI sympathy.

When I told Manchild about this bizarre moment, he asked, “Conversation with who? Suri? As in Tom Cruise’s child??”

Manchild understands that I have a real problem. In the last year he and I were considering a choice of movie to see on a date night. I jokingly offered the option War Horse.

“Um, what did you just say? Say it again.”

“Ware. Hearse.”

We started laughing, but both of us were really concerned. Why was I, in that moment, completely incapable of saying the words “war” and “horse”? Had I had a stroke at some recent point? Or had my mouth just become lazy for some reason, over time? (And if either is true, how do I manage to eat without drooling or spitting food?). Or, had I always struggled with being a “mumbler” as my mom calls me in frustration—if so, why in the world hadn’t my mother assisted me with my problem, rather than waiting until my 30s to start shouting at me about it and calling me names?

I started to notice more of my speech anomalies. Such as, I have trouble saying “pancakes” without saying “pang-cakes.” Please tell me this is a southern dialect thing.

And beyond the humor and subtle frustration of my problem, it really is starting to disrupt my daily life. I have a good friend named Joy, but the Bluetooth-enabled-voice-recognition computer in my car will not call her when I ask it to. Instead it searches for Joey. One day it misunderstood my asking it to call my husband. Randomly, it began calling my sister-in-law’s father, whom I met once, via an obscure contact number deep within its computer brain. And after my divorce with Siri, I can’t count on her when I want to dictate writing ideas in my car. Instead I mutter the ideas under my breath until I reach my destination and try to quickly type all I can remember into a note. I could try a voice memo but…would I understand my own memo later?? So, ironically, I’d probably be a more successful writer if I could speak more clearly and communicate with robots.

Handed Down from Generation to Generation…???

The latest blow happened this Christmas. I facilitated Girlchild and Boychild buying each other the Hallmark voice-activated stuffed husky dogs, Jingle and Belle. I had hope for my speech prognosis after Belle responded correctly when I read to her from her accompanying book.

But then there was Jingle. Jingle sometimes responded to my reading, other times mocked me via his silence. After a change of batteries didn’t remedy the situation, I asked my husband to return him to Hallmark. He did. And Jingle #2 was consistent in his total lack of response to my reading. (Great. I’d just downgraded my child’s toy.)

I knew I wasn’t the best spokesperson for the failure of this toy, but I took Boychild and Jingle into Hallmark and explained. My worst nightmares came true as the store clerk asked me to show her how the toy failed. I turned on Jingle’s switch, and began reading key words, trying as best I could to leave out sarcasm. And the little beast responded. Just as I thought, his goal was to make an ass of me. In the instances Jingle didn’t respond, the clerk began to coach me on my speech: “A little slower.” “Can you speak more clearly?” etc. But for the most part, Jingle won the battle. I took Boychild and Jingle back to the car, muttering under my breath, but happy that at least this toy worked.

Right away once in the car, however, Jingle was mum. What. A. Jerk. I was too embarrassed to immediately march back into Hallmark and protest. At home, I decided to resort to playing the CD of the book recording; the CD provided by Hallmark, read in a normal person’s voice. Jingle liked that just fine, and showcased his voice activation response skills for Boychild to see.

New rule:  Never trust the guy with the sewn-on smile.

New rule: Never trust the guy with the sewn-on smile.

Ah, well. I thought. I don’t want to fight anymore. I will do my best to speak more slowly and clearly, and pray that I am understood more times than not. At least most of my friends are able to translate me successfully (kudos to you, dear friends!).

But then Girlchild brought Belle, the seemingly competent robot husky, to show-and-tell at school. When we picked up the boys with whom we carpool, she decided to show them how Belle responds when she reads the book.

For the first time, Belle didn’t cooperate. Eventually things resulted in my daughter desperately shouting at the top of her lungs, “Belle, you’re a pretty girl!!” and then almost crying after the beast made a mockery of her with its silence.

I admit that I felt a combination of relief and sadness as I drove the rest of the way to school, unable to offer her any explanation of the toy failure. If she needs speech therapy, I thought, maybe we can attend as a mother-daughter team. If not, then at least I can’t take the robot husky mockery personally.


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