Monday, November 17, 2008

Speak up!

by Molly Borowitz

I have a long-held theory, to which many of my female and gay-male friends have been subjected, that college women lower the pitch of their voices when speaking in situations where they want to present themselves as authoritative.

Obviously all voices are not created equal. Some of us have lower speaking voices than others. I remember being told as a tween—probably at eleven or twelve—that it was okay to have a low voice. After one of my teachers mistook me for a male classmate over the phone, my mom reassured me that lots of women are altos, like my aunt and grandmother (to the point that they sometimes get reported in department-store dressing rooms—no, I am not kidding: twice, someone has called store security to say there's a man in the ladies' dressing room), and that it doesn't matter at all.

However, it wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I started working regularly at the Writing Center, that I became aware of how low my speaking voice was sitting. I would leave three-hour shifts vocally exhausted, the muscles around my throat literally strained. The same thing sometimes happened after three-hour seminars in which I was particularly vocal. I was perennially perplexed: why was my voice so tired?

Last year, when I finally got around to taking voice lessons, my teacher immediately criticized the way I spoke. "You need to raise your pitch," he said. "When you talk that low in your range, you make yourself hoarse." I was confused. That's just how I'd always talked, I told him—my speaking voice happened to sit really low. "No," he said. "Your voice is a lot higher than that; you're just talking at the bottom of it." Given that I wanted neither to develop vocal nodules nor to waste my $600 a semester, I started working on "raising my pitch."

And thus sensitized to where women speak in their ranges, I realized that in class, all the girls spoke at the bottom of their ranges. For some people it was more pronounced: in one of my 300-level complit seminars, there was a senior who quite literally went into vocal fry (that funny buzzing sound you make when your voice bottoms out) at the end of every sentence. By contrast, another senior—an actress now at Yale Drama School—spoke much closer to the middle of her range; she, unlike Julia, was vocally trained and knew how to use her voice healthily.

By the end of the semester, I was convinced, so I took the question to my feminist public. All of my female friends—including several singers—completely agreed. One friend, a religion major who's taken many upper-level courses, said that she had experienced the phenomenon most particularly in one of her graduate seminars, in which she was the only woman and the only undergrad. Most girls agreed that they only spoke that low in class or when they were in positions of authority—running a rehearsal, tutoring another student, giving a tour—and that in fact the opposite was true when they were trying to ingratiate themselves with authority figures (I experienced this phenomenon myself earlier this fall when, late for a class in Firestone, I realized I had forgotten my prox and found myself petitioning the security guard in a sweet soprano, rather than my usual voluble alto). The experience was universal, but so was our unawareness of it; none of my female friends, before this conversation, had had any conscious idea that they were lowering their voices to lend authority to their ideas.

I also took the theory to my mother (a speech pathologist) for verification, but was surprised to hear that the women she works with do not lower their pitch when talking to coworkers, patients, or parents. My mom works in a hospital; she interfaces regularly with lots of men, many of whom have graduate degrees and incredibly specialized bodies of knowledge. She works with surgeons (which, I've been told, are still kind of the "boys' club" of medicine), with general pediatricians, with occupational therapists and nurses. Yet she and her female coworkers, even when they have to assert authority over or advance conflicting opinions to these people, do not feel the need to lower their voices to do so. They don't need to sound like men; being confident in their knowledge is just as valid.

Now, my mom and her colleagues are only one example; I don't know what happens in finance, academia, public policy, law, or any of the other various fields that women are slowly but steadily conquering. But it's clear that at least in the college classroom, women think they have to sound more like boys in order to be respected. I think this phenomenon persists more because of our fears (doesn't sounding "like a girl" mean sounding ditzy, silly, unintelligent?) and less because of our audiences' attitudes. If you're making a valid academic observation, your professor isn't going to disregard it just because your vocal chords vibrated above a certain frequency.

So this week, ladies, I challenge you to speak up! Think about keeping that pitch up when you talk to professors, expound on your ideas in precept, meet with advisers, tutor students, run rehearsals, give tours, or do anything else authoritative. For one thing, your voice will thank you; for another, the people around you will respect your opinions just as much—maybe all the more because you're confident enough to utter them without changing a thing about yourself.


At November 19, 2008 at 7:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

after reading this, i tried to heighten the pitch of my voice in precept today, and it really did feel more physically comfortable, although socially awkward at first. not sure this voice phenomenon relates much to feminism. i think it's just a natural biological tendency among both and men and women to lower one's voice when trying to sound authoritative. that said, i found this very interesting.

At November 19, 2008 at 11:44 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Ya, I agree, you notice how guys lower their voice when they are talking to girls on the phone? Well, maybe not, but I have. And honestly, there has to be something said about really annoying high pitched voices. I don't care how feminist you are, some voices are pretty damn annoying and if they lower it, hell, all the better for my ears. I don't think that's sexist, I just think that has to do with the nature of sound and our ear drums

At November 21, 2008 at 3:42 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Speaking as someone who naturally has a very high-pitched voice, shrill voices are just plain old hard to listen to -- everybody's ears would probably thank me if I pitched down a bit, not because I'm too girly when I talk but because I'm too piercing.

I agree with you, Molly, that a girl shouldn't feel like her voice is biologically inferior to a man's because of its pitch, and that pitch at which words are spoken shouldn't affect the consideration of the words' content. However, I speak differently when talking to different groups of people, talking about different subject, or talking with different levels of formality, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that -- I see it as far more akin to facial expressions than to an alteration of identity. The light and giggly voice I use talking to a girlfriend about our love of ice cream is a very different voice than I use talking to the exact same person about politics, which is a different voice than I use when again talking to the same person when's she's going through a difficult break-up. Common sense says that everyone, male and female, alters their syntax and speech patterns -- including pitch -- when they're speaking in class versus when they're talking to friends.

The problem you pointed out, Molly, is that women are feeling that they can't be taken seriously unless they speak like men -- and that's a problem. I've got to agree with the comments above, though -- I'm not convinced that women lowering their pitch is necessarily a sign that they're negating their female-ness.

At January 12, 2009 at 11:54 AM , Anonymous Donald Sosin said...

Hallelujah! There's someone else out there who feels as we do (I'm a guy, and not a day goes by that my singer/voice teacher wife does not shudder when she hears the ever-increasing amount of low gravelly female voices on NPR(Melissa Block, many local reporters) and elsewhere in our travels. The authority angle is an interesting one we have not discussed much, but certainly male announcers seem trained to be more serious and concerned at the bottom of their registers, and it sounds like many women are imitating this. But it also seems linked to a kind of valley girl talk that started with actresses like Paris Hilton and continues with Ellen Page and other younger voices. Our son, a sophomore in college, says that last year it was mostly the really attractive girls that were talking this way, now it has spread to all the girls he knows. We both think it's a truly awful sound, that it has nothing to do with being an alto or soprano (I'm a composer and music director and write a lot for the voice, so this comes up all the time in my work), and that many of these girls/women will find themselves with no voice in the next few years from the constant abuse of their vocal cords. How to stop this? Particularly since, as you say, most people seem completely oblivious that there's any problem. Thanks for beginning the discussion!

Best wishes


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