Voice prejudice: What does it say about us?

by Margo White / 16 July, 2017

Examining our vocal prejudices – and public service announcements.

My father’s voice was often raised in ill temper, but at 89 cancer wrecked his vocal cords and reduced it to a whisper. The irony was obvious, but most of me thought, how awful – the voice that was such a fundamental part of him had largely disappeared. Still, through sheer force of will, he managed to sound himself, even while whispering.

You can tell a lot about people from the way they speak: age, gender, their country of origin, where they went to school, possibly how much they weigh, sometimes what they do for a living – if, say, the speaker is a judge or a lawyer and they’re trying to sound like they went to Eton.

If a person’s vocal idiosyncrasies reveal something about them, they can also make you rush to judgment and put you off listening to what they have to say. My personal aversions include exaggerated vowels and/or exaggerated consonants, the know-it-all voice, the whiny voice, the nasal voice, the monotonous voice – I could go on. Naturally, this judgmental approach to voices extends to include my own; I have to listen to it on my voice recorder when transcribing interviews, and it’s embarrassing.

Women are often judged more harshly for their voices, and have come in for considerable stick in recent years for what is known as “vocal fry”, a mode of speech that, according to one study, is common among women and makes them sound incompetent and ill-educated. According to Time magazine, “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians”.

There are instructional videos on YouTube on how to achieve vocal fry; how to lower your voice and talk from the back of your throat with a creak at the end, the sound some of us make as we’re drifting off to sleep and just before we start snoring. Men use it, too, but people don’t seem to notice as much. Vocal fry, you could say, is a feminist issue.

So, it seems, is the “rising inflection”, also known as the “high-rising terminal” or “uptalk”, which makes a statement sound like a question. It’s often associated with women and criticised for making the speaker sound insecure or uncertain, although it strikes me it can also sound patronising, as if the speaker is pointing out the obvious but trying to soften the blow. For whatever reason, everyone’s at it, men and women, both the bossy and the shy.

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That we have so many prejudices about other people’s voices makes you think about how voices are selected for public service announcements, such as the voices that tell Londoners to “mind the gap” or more locally, to inform Aucklanders there’ll be another train, oh, one of these days.

There’s probably a science to how they’re chosen, although it’s likely more the science of gut instincts. The man whose voice I’ve heard doing the platform announcements at Auckland’s Britomart station sounds like a mature gentleman, authoritative but not in an authoritarian way, the kind of voice that can tell people their train is delayed without sounding as if he’s making a mockery of them.  

The pre-recorded voice on the city’s Hop On Hop Off Explorer Bus, by contrast, is that of a woman with a smile in her voice, talking to passengers as if they were going on a summer holiday. “Next stop, Wellesley St!” She sounds like a nice person, but her upbeat voice can jar, given how long the bus can take to actually get to Wellesley St.

As an example of the wrong voice for the occasion, I’d suggest the “public toilet solution” at Henderson train station. You shut the door, and a voice tells you, “Door locked!” There’s music, probably selected to sound like a waterfall, and a disembodied voice bellows, “If you require a clean seat, press the button in front of you!” What? Then it tells you, “Your maximum use time is 10 minutes!”

A friend was told, “Your maximum use time is almost up!” – although he says he was only in there for a couple of minutes, so it must have been a computer malfunction. Obviously he scrambled to get out before he was caught in a public loo with his pants down. “You’re just using a toilet and there’s this soft music, then this authoritarian commander voice says, ‘Door locked. You’ll never get out of here alive!’” he recalls. “It was the kind of automated voice that might be used to tell you your daughter was being held hostage."

Ring announcer Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble” Buffer has made millions from licensing deals and ads using his trademarked catchphrase.

If you have the right voice for the right occasion, you could make a mint. Boxing and wrestling ring announcer Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble” Buffer was able to trademark his delivery of the aforementioned catchphrase and has used it in various licensing deals and ads, including a Kraft Cheese commercial: “Let’s get ready to crumble!” Hilarious. It’s estimated to have generated more than $US400 million in revenue. Ridiculous.

You might have thought Susan Bennett, the voice-over artist whose voice was used for Apple’s original Siri (launched in 2011), would have made a bundle, but she didn’t even know until a friend with a new iPhone rang her up and told her. Bennett had worked for a voice-recording company, spending several hours a day repeating disjointed syllables and sentences that didn’t make sense, in the same tone, at the same pacing, at the same pitch.

She thought the company would use her voice for phone messaging services, but it turned out that her various sounds were extracted and then reformed to create the voice of a million-plus iPhones. This hasn’t been acknowledged by Apple, although a forensic audiologist hired by CNN says it’s definitely her. She didn’t make any money out of it, however, apart from the wages earned as a voice for hire.

Would you donate your voice to charity? More than 10 million people live without a voice, many of them relying on text-to-speech devices that until recently made everyone using them sound like Stephen Hawking. But we now live in an age when we have the technology to give the voiceless a less generic voice. Which is why speech-science professor Rupal Patel set up VocaliD (pronounced “vocality”) to develop personalised voices for text-to-speech systems, by crowdsourcing voices from around the world.

In her TED Talk, Patel says we all have a unique voiceprint and quotes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, “The human voice is the organ of the soul.” She was prompted to set up the company after attending a speech-technology conference where she noticed many of the people there sounded like an American man, whether they were a nine-year-old girl or, in fact, a 40-year-old American man.

VocaliD has two main product lines. There’s a Bespoke Voice service, for people with speech impairments but who can record three seconds of sound, which is enough to match an individual with a speech donor from the company’s voice bank. It also provides a Vocal Legacy service, for people who can speak but want to preserve their voice in case there comes a time when they can’t.

If such technology had existed before Hawking lost his voice, we’d know what his real voice sounded like, and whether or not he really did once sound like actor Eddie Redmayne. But he’s lived with a computerised voice for some time now and he is quite used to it (as are we). “It is the best I have heard,” he once said, “although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish.”

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This was published in the June 2017 issue of North & South.

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