Geniuses, lower your voices

I’ve been co-hosting a pop culture podcast since the summer of 2015, and we get a steady trickle of emails from our listeners as well as the odd review on iTunes. Most of these messages are about what we cover on the show or suggestions for what we might talk about in the future. They’re almost universally positive and friendly, and yet I still feel slightly apprehensive every time I log in and wait for the inbox to load. This time, you see, there might be one of the horrible messages about the way we talk.

They don’t arrive often, but they do keep coming. These are the emails, often from men, sometimes anonymous, that say it’s impossible to listen to our show for more than ten minutes at a time because of our vocal fry, or that we sound “like two posh schoolgirls doing a sixth form radio show and not adults to be taken seriously”. It isn’t just us that receives these communications, either: it’s so widespread in audio that Katie Mingle, senior producer at 99% Invisible, has the following stock reply for such messages:

Once, we received a wetransfer request from a man who had taken the time to edit every incidence of us saying “like” from the show, stitch it together into a, like, supercut of likes, and then sent us the mp3.

At the time, I laughed about this with my co-host Anna, and we continue to marvel at the fact that these people go to such effort to tell us about their disdain for our voices, given that listening to our podcast is entirely optional and they could just. . . not. But there’s more to this than just a few unpleasant people with time on their hands who dig out our email address. There’s a lot of baggage about when it comes to podcasts, voices and how people respond to them.

In 2015, This American Life weighed in on the debate about vocal fry — the creaky sound your voice can make if you force it down into the bottom of your register, a vocal habit considered more prevalent among younger people, especially women — after they aired a segment titled “Freedom Fries” as part of an episode called “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” (you might remember it as the one with Lindy West’s trolling story). It’s pretty funny, and you should listen to it: Ira Glass reads out some of the awful messages they get about how the show’s female reporters sound, and then digs into what’s really at work on this issue. He has vocal fry himself, he points out, and yet This American Life has never received a complaint about it. “So it’s just sexism?” he asks a fellow reporter towards the end. “Yes. I think it taps into some deep part of people’s selves where they don’t want to hear young women,” she replies. The experts back this up: Lisa Davidson, Professor and Chair of Linguistics and New York University, told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that “even though [people] can hear [vocal fry] in men’s speech, they’re negatively evaluating it only in women’s speech”.

All of this came back to mind this week when I saw this study being covered by various media outlets. Cecilia Pemberton at the University of South Australia has published research in the Journal of Voice showing that the “fundamental frequency” of women’s voices has dropped significantly in the last 50 years. Many have interpreted this as evidence that women are — deliberately or subconsciously — dropping the tone of their voices in order to be perceived as authoritative and serious. We’re conditioned to consider higher, less assertive voices as less convincing, so women who want to get ahead in male-dominated workplaces adopt more conventionally masculine vocal characteristics to escape the prejudice attached to their natural mode of speech.

The phenomenon of “NPR Voice” is related to this: essentially a widespread stereotype of how a voice should sound on a podcast or radio programme based on the common traits heard on US public radio. This excellent article by Chenjerai Kumanyika for Transom explores how considering a white (often male) vocal sound to be the default is harmful:

It is not just about the kind of stories that non-white journalists tell. It’s also about the ways that vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. When the vocal patterns of a narrow range of ethnicities quietly becomes the standard sound of a genre, we’re missing out on essential cultural information. We’re missing out on the joyful, tragic, moments and unique dispositions that are encoded in different traditions of oratory.

Everyone code switches to a greater or lesser extent every day, although obviously this is a much bigger deal if you’re part of a minority trying to be heard against the tide of a dominant group. Let’s enjoy this Key & Peele sketch about it for a second:

My South African mother has a “meeting a new British person” voice she does that is very different to the voice she uses to talk to her sister-in-law back home. I have a phone voice, and I have a radio voice. However, I don’t have a podcast voice. The way I talk to Anna when we’re recording is how I would talk to her any other time. It’s also how I talk to my husband and to my dog. It’s just how I sound, which is why the messages from people who hate the sound of our podcast are somehow worse than any other kind of abuse I’ve had on the internet. We put a lot of effort into making our show relaxed, chatty and informal so that it was approachable and fun for listeners. For once, I’m not lowering my voice or adopting a different register in order to satisfy some embedded societal idea of how I should sound. And of course, for those who still think that anything that deviates from the white male default is automatically worse, that’s unbearable.