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July 08, 2015

How your speech patterns could impact the way others see you

Vocal fry, over-apologizing, and 'sounding gay' subject of public discussion

Do you suffer from vocal fry? Or say "just" just a little too often? Or apologize every other sentence? If so, some believe the way you talk is a problem -- while many say those criticisms are off-base. 

In case you're not familiar, vocal fry is often described as the way ultra-famous reality television stars the Kardashians speak. A 2012 New York Times article about the trend in American women is often cited when explaining what it is. It's characterized by a low vocal register with a vibrating of the throat and sounds something like this, via WHYY's The Pulse: 

That's the researched, more intelligent example. Here's the pop culture reference that the term is often associated with:

The NYT piece cites several speech pathologists who caution not to form negative judgments about the way of talking -- which was used as far back as the 1960s by British men to establish social status and is heard in the voices of today's teenage girls to convey disinterest.  

Cameron Fough, professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in California, told the NYT that vocal fry, or similar forms of speech like uptalk (ending all of your sentences in question) are used by women as a tool: 

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid. The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
Despite that, research shows that speaking with vocal fry can -- fairly or not -- impact how women are perceived. A 2014 Duke study found that women who use vocal fry are seen more negatively than men who do, and can hurt their chances of getting a job.

Now, other supposed trends have caught heat among former business executives and media commentators. 

Former Google executive Ellen Petry Lense wrote for Business Insider in June that professional women should try to stop using the word "just" so much after observing that it unnecessarily softened the conviction of a statement:

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn't like. It was a "permission" word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking "Can I get something I need from you?"

Lense cites a few social experiments that reinforce her belief but notes she has no research to fully back it up. Her piece came just days after an NYT piece called for women to stop apologizing so much, echoing a similar sentiment from an opinion in TIME from 2014, both stating that it undermined female authority in one way or another. 

In response, one language professional addressed the notion that "sorry" and "just" should be less prevalent in women's vocabulary.

Scottish feminist linguist Deborah Cameron wrote in a blog post responding to Lense's piece that using "just" isn't necessarily deferring power, but instead was a symbol of empathy, and claims the former executive's article was essentially asking women to speak like men. 

She also addresses the "sorry" epidemic, chalking up the supposed issue to stereotypes and expresses a general concern over the "policing" of women's speech, especially by other women:

Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’
Women aren't the only ones whose pattern of speaking has become a subject of public discourse. The way gay men speak is the subject of a new documentary called "Do I Sound Gay," which will be released Friday, July 10. 

The film's creator David Thorpe recently sat down with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air and explained the origins of the film. Thorpe, who is openly gay, noted that he was self-conscious of the way he sounded as a child. 

Thorpe told Gross that he believes having predominantly female role models and friends growing up swayed the way his voice ended up sounding. He said that after working with speech therapist Susan Sankin, he came to the conclusion that he didn't need to completely change the way he sounded and eventually became more comfortable with it. Per NPR:

But I embrace it now and I think it can be fun and funny and part of who I am. What I took from Susan was more an easy way of speaking and an ability to speak authentically rather than changing my style to sound less gay.
"Do I Sound Gay" will be screening at the Ritz at the Bourse at 400 Ranstead Street on Friday, July 17. 

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