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I Can Fry if I Want To: Why Are Females Chided for Vocal Tics That Guys Use Too?

July 29, 2015
by Krissy Eliot
Woman with her lips zipped

It seems as if every time a women opens her mouth, she runs the risk of antagonizing the vocal police.

If her voice is too high, she fails to convey authority. If she aims low and engages in “vocal fry”—that creaky-voiced dip in tone at the end of a sentence—she’s contributing to what Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast host Bob Garfield decries as a vocal fry “epidemic”: Likening it to “a human record scratch,” he declares, “When you hear it enough, you may want to kill yourself.” If she drops in filler words such as “like” and “you know,” she evokes the merciless mocking familiar to viewers of the films Clueless and Legally Blonde. And if she uses “uptalk” (the raising of pitch at the end of a phrase or sentence? To make it sound like a question? Even though it’s a statement?) she finds her vocal pattern derided in a myriad of recent articles that address female upspeak as a demon to be be exorcised from the body of phonetics. In a recent letter addressed to young women, feminist Naomi Wolf warned that they were being “hobbled” by vocal habits that signaled submission, hesitancy and weakness.

But here’s the truth of the matter: Both genders engage in these vocal and speech behaviors.

Research by University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman shows that the “low creaky vibrations” of vocal fry “have been common since forever” among men and women (even though women tend to use it more). Publisher Pearson surveyed 700 managers and asked them how they feel about upspeak in both sexes (since research shows that men and women do it), and 70 percent said it was “annoying” for all genders and would hinder chances of getting a job. Liberman also analyzed 12,000 phone conversations and discovered that although young people used filler words such as “like” more than older people, men and women both used it. In fact, men use it more often.

“If it sounds mechanical, if it sounds like a style of speaking, if your belief isn’t behind it, it’s going to sound phony.”

So why are female speech patterns, like, under such scrutiny, while men can, like, talk however they want?

“Young, urban women are the leaders of language change,” said Auburn Barron-Lutzross, a linguist and UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate who researches the way people use language to understand and construct social identities. “So when something new happens [in female speech], people will become critical and maybe even disturbed and say, ‘That’s not how the language is supposed to sound!’ But it will continue to spread.”

In other words, women are speech innovators. And these innovations can be a shock when they subvert listener expectations of how people “should” sound.

People on the UC Berkeley campus talk about their own voices, the voices of others—and their perceptions of how males and females “should” sound.

For example, people expect a higher-pitched tone from a woman, and when she delivers a low, creaky voice (vocal fry), a listener is more likely to regard it as suspect. In a 2014 study, researchers recorded seven young adult males and seven young adult females saying, “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” in both their regular tone and in vocal fry. The recordings were played for 400 male listeners and 400 female listeners. Listeners tended to prefer normal voices over vocal fry, but they also generally disliked the female vocal fryers more—ranking them as less hirable and less “trustworthy” than the male fryers.

Because it is a vocal flourish, fry can make someone’s speech sound affected or unnatural. This can make a speaker seem inauthentic—especially if the speaker is a female who traditionally has a higher, non-creaky voice.

“Nobody wants to talk to somebody who sounds like a machine, or somebody that [makes you wonder] if they really mean what they say,” said Deborah Sussel, an acting, voice and speech coach and senior lecturer emerita at UC Berkeley. “If it sounds mechanical, if it sounds like a style of speaking, if your belief isn’t behind it, it’s going to sound phony.”

Men, of course, usually speak in a lower register, so when they use vocal fry to dip into a deeper tone, they simply seem more “manly.” In fact, vocal fry was originally used more often by men to seem “hyper-masculine,” and was considered to be a “robust marker of male speech,” according to an academic paper by visiting Berkeley scholar Ikuko Patricia Yuasa.

“Despite the fact that more recent researchers have detected frequent creaky voice usage among female speakers,” Yuasa writes, “in general, previous researchers of creaky voice have interpreted it as a voice quality of masculinity or authority.”

A woman discusses a presentations

So when a woman uses vocal fry, she’s deviating from the tone society expects her to use—and this can be jarring since feminine voices are not usually tied to authority. “Women are relatively newer to positions of authority,” said Sussel. “So it’s like women are upstarts. They’re really scrutinized and critically listened to.”

Of course, a woman doesn’t want to avoid vocal fry so much that her tone becomes too high pitched—lest she deliver information in the form of a shrill, female yak.

After all, research shows that people prefer leaders with deep voices. Lower voices signify dominance and strength, probably because (shocker) men have deeper voices and have been in power since, well, forever. (Apparently Margaret Thatcher had the right idea when she hired a coach to make her voice deeper.)

So it could be that if a woman is experimenting with her tone or inflection in a way that has yet to be normalized with deep-boomy-man voices, she’s kinda linguistically fringe. And since studies have shown that men are traditionally slower on the linguistic uptake (or should I say, “uptalk”), it can take a while for these trends to become acceptable in society.

For example, women have been using uptalk more casually and frequently than men for decades. It wasn’t until recent years that men finally started to catch on. Even though women still use it more than guys, men are now upspeaking a lot too, according to linguistic studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Last year sociologist Thomas Linneman researched uptalk by watching 100 episodes of the game show Jeopardy! and tracking when and how men and women did it. “Men use uptalk more when surrounded by women contestants,” he observed, “and when correcting a woman contestant after she makes an incorrect response.”

The fact that men shift their speech to match women makes sense. It’s common for people to change how they talk to fit into a group—the phenomenon is called speech convergence.

Given that femininity and “talking like a girl” have long been more likely to be regarded as “weak” or “dumb,” it would make sense for people to be surprised and have a negative reaction to men changing their speech to fit in with the ladies. In her GQ essay on upspeak, Renee Dale cautions men against talking like “an attractive girl-woman,” and suggests what would happen if a man started using uptalk: “If you have a partner with ‘different ideas about money,’ understand what she might do with this. Treat you like the quavery schoolgirl you sound like and buy herself a fancy new bag. To put your plums in because you don’t need them anymore.”


A woman in front of a microphone

As if women weren’t getting enough flak for their fry and upspeak, they’re also criticized for using filler words, which, as studies have shown, everyone does. But because women tend to use certain kinds of filler words more, those words are then perceived as a disturbing female tic.

The founder of Karmahacks, Ellen Petry Lense, wrote a viral LinkedIn post urging women to stop using the word “just” because it’s “a subtle message of subordination, of deference,” she contends. “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?’”

And these critiques aren’t just delivered in blogs and articles—you can even find them in shampoo ads.

After studies showed that females tend to apologize more than males, because women “have a higher threshold” than men “for what constitutes offensive behavior,” a Pantene commercial attacked women’s use of the filler word “sorry.” The ad shows a series of women apologizing for interrupting someone in their office, say, or taking a blanket from a partner in bed. “Why are women always apologizing?” the ad says. “Don’t be sorry. Be strong and shine!”

The ad then shows the same women stealing blankets and opening doors to people’s offices without a “sorry” inserted—as if that’s the better way to speak. Because barging in or blanket-hogging without apology is somehow the better way to go about things.

Where are all the Axe commercials and open letters to men suggesting that guys cease using fillers—or for that matter, prodding them to apologize more?

As blogger Debuk satirically points out, they’re in short supply:

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article — mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence.

What’s most interesting about this is the research surrounding why women use certain kinds of filler words more.

Researchers at the University of Texas broke up filler words into two categories: filled pauses and discourse markers. The use of filled pauses (words like “uh” and “um”) was found to be comparable across all ages and genders. But discourse markers, like “I mean” and “you know,” don’t simply fill silences—they convey meaning, purposefully signaling to a listener that the speaker is simply expressing a personal opinion or seeking assurance that the listener is understanding them. The use of such discourse markers was found to be “more common among women, younger participants, and more conscientious people.”

So even though women’s tendency to use more discourse markers may be perceived as a verbal tic, it could actually be that women are just far more thorough, careful and principled in their speech. Perhaps men should adopt more frequent use of “sorry” and “just” in order to be perceived as more meticulous and get along better with people.

The irony of all this is that the media’s widespread, negative reaction to female linguistic tendencies calls more attention to them, which could cause more people to pick them up in the long run. Sure, there are a lot of people who don’t want to talk like Kim Kardashian, poster child of vocal fry—but there are also a lot of people who do.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of a woman’s voice or manner of speaking, if it’s not getting in the way of communication, then the critics should probably just get over it.

“It all depends on the individual case,” says Sussel, the vocal and speech coach. “One of the things that I’m assessing is if their habit is getting in the way of their communication to such an extent that I would want to encourage a new habit. If it’s just occasional, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

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