Monday, August 1, 2016

His Mistress's Voice

Everyone knows that the male voice has a lower pitch than the female voice. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact, a biological datum, and is not a social construction. When a boy reaches puberty his voice drops. When a girl reaches puberty her voice does not drop in pitch.

Thus, the male voice has a more commanding presence and more authority than a female voice. It is more likely to strike fear in people, as though to say that those who fail to respect it will suffer consequences. For this reason, groups most often choose male leaders. When groups choose female leaders their enemies tend to see it as a sign of weakness.

The voice difference has caused singers like Helen Reddy and Katy Perry sing feminist anthems about strong powerful women who ROAR, like tigers. In the video for Katy Perry’s song “Roar” the songstress stares down a tiger with her powerful roar.

Women who hear these songs and who then pretend to be just as strong as men often learn the hard way that some thoughts should remain in fiction.

Strictly speaking, all human beings have had the experience of being exposed to an authoritative female voice. Our mothers have all at some point spoken to us sternly and authoritatively. They have all gotten angry at us and have even chewed us out. The same applies to our first schoolteachers, many of whom have exhibited strength through their voices.

Like mothers, schoolteachers of young children are most often female. This might have something to do with the fact that women have a more maternal and nurturing side, thus a skill set that does well in caring for children. To imagine that women have been consigned to the roles of mother and schoolmarm because men are afraid to see women in the workforce is absurd on its face.

For all I know mothers have less fearsome voices because we do not want them scaring the bejesus out of little children. The lower male pitch adds an element of fear, element that is not as present in the warmer, more nurturing female voice.

It would appear to be normal that human beings, both male and female, associate powerful female voices with mothers and schoolteachers. And yet, people who can exercise authority over children cannot use the same or a similar voice to exercise authority over adults.

On the most elemental level a woman is stronger than a child, but weaker than a male. While a child might have something to fear from an angry older female an adult male will think that he has little to fear from an angry older female. If voice pitch is innate to the organism, it is the product of evolution. Thus, it is there for a reason and is not likely to disappear because a chanteuse can pretend to roar or because a feminist has waved a magic wand at it.

But, this poses a problem for women in the workforce. Very often a woman in a position of authority will find that her voice gives her away. It sounds like an affectation, like an ersatz male voice, and this provokes derision and contempt.

Is this a sign of sexism or does it have something to do with reality? Everyone knows that men are constitutionally stronger than women. Does this elementary fact explain why, in our DNA we are more likely to follow the lead of a strong, firm male voice while disparaging a softer, weaker, more melodious female voice? How much does this fact constitute a barrier to women in leadership position in status hierarchies?

Here we assume, for the sake of argument, that women all want to rise up to the top of status hierarchies.

Evidently, Hillary Clinton’s nomination as a presidential candidate raises these issues, and Jordan Kisner addresses many of them in her New York Magazine article.

Kisner writes:

Being “in command” is always the issue, and conversations about the excesses or insufficiencies of voices tend to rest on assumptions about authority. … When women are told they undermine their own authority in the workplace by sounding too sexy or too shrill, this supposes that femininity is anathema to competence.

Back in the early days of second-wave feminism, it was easily assumed, thanks to Betty Friedan, that the feminine mystique, thus, femininity was a plot contrived by the patriarchy to keep women at home and out of the workforce.

Being feminine has seemed to make it more difficult to be a leader. One ought to mention that Marissa Mayer has tried to be consciously feminine and a CEO. We have had and will have occasion to evaluate her success at this task.

Women are aware of the fact that lilting voices, accompanied by “uptalk” makes “statements sound like questions.”  Women who use it sound less authoritative and more in doubt about their decisions. Thus some women have tried to learn how to lower the pitch of their voices and to eliminate the uptalk.

They do so by engaging in what is called vocal “fry.” Kisner explains:

The tic that revealed women’s supposed lack of leadership skills in the ’80s and ‘90s was “uptalk,” a high lilt at the end of the sentence that makes even statements sound like questions. Today, it’s vocal fry, a gravelly effect that happens when you falsely lower your voice to the extent that the vocal cords fail to catch and “fry.” It’s that creaky, guttural, drawn-out sound at the end of a word.

Unfortunately, vocal fry seems fake to most people. And it irritates people, especially women:

Critics of vocal fry often point to a study by Duke University’s business school indicating that vocal fry undermines the success of young women in the labor market. While an earlier study concluded that millennials associated fried voices with upward mobility and sophistication even though older adults found them “less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable,” the Duke study found that vocal fry was perceived negatively by everyone regardless of age. The demographic most irritated by vocal fry in younger women in their study, they added, was older women.

Kisner continues, arguing that vocal fry sounds like an affectation, a bluff, one that is easily dismissed:

I noticed it while eavesdropping on a Lean In reading group meeting in a bookstore in Soho in 2011; every woman who spoke seemed to try to lower her voice farther than the last to sound more authoritative (read: more masculine). They sounded like a convention of jet engines. When I took a job in publishing, I heard the same affectation in conference rooms — voices lowered until they broke and dragged out, frazzled like a disaffected teenager’s. As I navigated my first sexist workplace, I occasionally dropped my own voice, hoping to sound less girlish and more worthy of serious consideration. I took care to find a timbre that suggested gravitas without veering into fry. It was the most practical application of my vocal training yet: playing a young woman someone might take seriously.

Of course, the lilting tone and the uptalk would not exist if it did not serve some purpose. For all I know these voice tics are evolutionary adaptations that are designed to attract male suitors. Women who do not want to attract male suitors, who consciously want to repel them, often use a guttural and vocal sound that is associated with the “cackle” of a witch.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

One of the reasons people took Margaret Thatcher seriously was her authoritative voice, even pitch and confident tone. This is why she was so successful as an early female leader. I'm not sure why more women have not learned this and followed her lead. When Hillary raises her voice, she sounds shrill, even looney.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: When groups choose female leaders their enemies tend to see it as a sign of weakness.

Laughable projection.

I can equally say when people choose blowhard leaders, their enemies tend to see it as a sign of weakness, a people who are afraid and who think like children.

I do agree that there are different ways of speaking for males and females individually, so a faster and higher-pitched voice in either gender comes across as less confident, and slower and lower-pitched as more confident, higher status, and you can see that people treat you differently based on how you speak, and that itself can raise confidence and status.

Toastmasters will work with that, and I'm sure anyone who wants to participate in leadership positions could use some training in how they project their voice.

Here's example document on voice quality:

There are thousands of clubs around the world, and a good chance you can find one close to you. I see there's 20 clubs within 5 miles of my zip code.

Lindsay Harold said...

"Everyone knows that the male voice has a lower pitch than the female voice. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact, a biological datum, and is not a social construction."

If you're interested in the biological reason for a man's lower voice, it stems (as you might expect) from testosterone. The rise in testosterone levels at puberty causes the thyroid cartilage in the throat to thicken and grow larger. This deepens the voice and also causes the cartilage to protrude from the throat region, making the "Adam's apple." If insufficient testosterone is present at puberty, as in females and castrated males, the voice will remain high.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sam L. said...

Many years ago, I heard an episode of Audio Oddities and Antiquities (no guarantee that is correct) on public radio, on which was played a record of a castrato singing. I believe it was from the early 1900s. It was a high, pure voice.

Maggie Thatcher was mentioned. How about Golda Meir?

AesopFan said...

It's not just the pitch, it's the delivery (as with Thatcher).
True story.
A young man in Air Force Officer Training School was doing great in everything except what they called "command presence" - he was an affable, consensus-oriented engineer who just couldn't get the hang of giving orders. So he consulted with the relative who retired from the AF with general's stars; didn't work. He consulted with the relative who ran a company training Pentagon people in operations management. Didn't work. Finally one of his siblings advised him to "just channel Mom."
That worked.

JK Brown said...

There is also a posture element to a command voice. The voice will be both deeper and have more projection if your spine is straight and the neck is lengthened to where the chin drops. This opens up the airway allowing the diaphragm to have free flow. With the head tilted up, even a bit, the voice becomes more nasally (childish). Of course, shorter men and most women don't naturally find this effect since they rarely are looking down upon another speaker. Taller men can develop this.

I discovered this through learning of the Alexander Technique, which was developed to help with voice projection to the back of the theater. I suspect self-discovery of this is being lost as microphones replace the need to develop voice.

I read an anecdote that Lauren Bacall developed her "voice" on her first movie. She was so nervous, she had to tilt her chin down to keep it from shaking. This gave her voice its distinctive timber that she then cultivated.

I've had to counsel many young officers, mostly female, to not end their commands with a question mark, an uplift in tone. Rather all commands should end in a very hard, very harsh sounding period, cut off the sound suddenly and emphatically. Of course, going about daily life speaking in "command voice" is not a good way to develop consensus or show respect to others, but when commands are needed it is needed in the repertoire.

AesopFan said...

Anonymous JK Brown said...
Excellent advice, and thanks for the story about Bacall.
My family has done a lot of amateur theater over the years, and I totally agree that the art of voice-projection is just about extinct. However, it is a useful skill on a lot of levels, for instance, when people (e.g., Boy Scouts) need to be directed in the outdoors.