Appearing calm, confident, sure of ourselves… so much is perceived through our posture, but also – more surprisingly – through our voice. Just as our gestures and facial expressions reflect our thoughts, our voice says a lot about who we are, our emotions and the barriers that hinder us. While some people think their voice is too weak, others find theirs too shrill or rugged. In the professional world, it can often be seen as an obstacle by those who feel their voice prevents them from being heard as they would like. But can a particular tone of voice really influence a career? And if so, how?
Are deep voices more attractive?
According to a recent study by Dr Krishnan Nair, a researcher at Chicago’s Northwestern University, male CEOs are better paid when their voices sound more “masculine”. To prove this, Dr Nair and his team compared voice recordings of the chairmen of several top-listed UK companies in their first three years in post. It turns out that the deeper and more masculine their voice, the more likely CEOs are to earn high salaries. The reason? Human beings naturally associate a masculine voice with physical strength, unconsciously placing the person with the more masculine voice in a position of leadership.
Of course, someone with a more masculine voice isn’t necessarily physically imposing, and even if they were, there’s nothing to suggest that sounding like the Hulk makes them a better CEO. However, the fact remains that Dr Nair’s study sheds light on this unconscious association between the “masculinity of the voice” and a position of strength, a phenomenon that goes so far as to have repercussions on salary. Likewise, a 2015 study conducted jointly by the universities of Miami and Duke in the US suggested that people were more likely to vote for political candidates with a deep voice, as they appeared more competent. But why exactly do we value deep voices?
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The social construct of the voice
In adulthood, men’s and women’s voices are differentiated by the thickness and size of their vocal cords, yet the nuances appear more in tone than in pitch. According to observations carried out by Aron Arnold, a doctor of language sciences, a woman’s voice, even when she sounds serious, will be perceived as feminine because of its tone, which is clearer. To illustrate the difference between pitch and tone, Arnold uses the example of the same note played on a piano and a violin: the pitch is the same, but the tone is more subdued on the piano. While there are many physical differences that mean the majority of women have a clearer tone than most men, the values we associate with these differences in sound are based on social constructs.
Arnold also observed that children modulate their voices according to their gender, even though there is no physical difference in speech anatomy at that age. In the same way that gender plays a major role in the way we construct our gestures, the binary vision that governs western societies means that, in order to be accepted, we make sure our voice conforms to our gender. And because our societies are based on a patriarchal system, we associate the male voice with the values that are meant to characterise men, while the voices of women must reflect the attributes of femininity. “A woman must convey the image of the mother: a soft, melodic, sensual voice with just a dash of firmness,” explains vocal coach Yael Benzaquen. “Conversely, men with voices that are too deep and soft can create a teddy-bear image that’s lacking in authority.”
So having a deeper voice corresponds better with the cliché of the manly man – sure of himself, able to take care of his family – while a soft, sensual voice reflects a reassuring woman, both maternal and sexual at the same time. But is this trend going into reverse? One study shows that between 1945 and 2017, women’s voices deepened by half an octave. While some see this as a sign of freeing women from the clichés associated with the female voice, Blandine Rinkel, a writer and musician, sees it as a constraint imposed on females in order to be heard in the professional world, which is still largely dominated by men.
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Deconstructing the clichés
Tone of voice certainly plays a role in the way in which others perceive us. But in a professional context, where power relations are formed, it seems to be even more important, as it’s one of the first things people notice. Be careful, though: being overly attentive to how someone speaks can be dangerous. “The voice is representative of an individual, and if they are convinced of what they are saying, their voice will reflect this,” says Benzaquen. So, the idea is not to think that our tone of voice can influence our career in one way or another, but rather to reclaim our voice so it corresponds to who we are. “People who want to improve their voice have to work on three things,” says Benzaquen. “First, we must believe in what we are going to say; we must improve our articulation; and learn to take our time when speaking so our thoughts can be clearly understood.” Many politicians have used vocal coaches to learn how to express themselves in a way that allows their words to have a real impact.
Instead of trying to deepen your voice to establish your credibility, it is better to work on the things that lead us to think that our voice is a problem. What are the emotional and physical blockages that make our tone of voice seem unequal to the person we are? How can we improve our articulation to be better understood? “The voice can be modified by several external elements,” says Benzaquen. “This can come from internal tensions and pressures, poor diction due to the position of the facial muscles, or a posture that prevents us from breathing well.” Above all, the important thing is to identify potential problems with our voice and make the necessary adjustments.
While it is true that tone of voice can influence a career – in the sense that studies show a deep, soft voice tends to reassure an audience – attributing professional qualities to a person in the office because of their tone of voice is a slippery slope. Remember that beyond your tone of voice, conviction comes mainly from articulation, rhythm and clarity of speech.
Translated by: Kim Cunningham
Photo by Welcome to the Jungle
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