Skip to main content
the future of work

I recently met with a young woman who spoke clearly and intelligently about a complex technical issue. Unfortunately, her message was undermined by the sound of her soft and squeaky voice. She may be in her late 20s, but she sounded like a five-year-old.

In business, it is accepted practice to present oneself professionally, with the proper clothes, posture, eye contact or handshake – but our voices can often betray us. I know this firsthand – my natural tone is quiet and quick so I must force myself to speak a little louder, slower and enunciate more clearly. I often catch one colleague engaging in uptalk, an annoying habit where the speaker ends their statements with a question mark.

Now a relatively new affectation seems to have gained in popularity, predominantly among young women. Speech pathologists have labelled it "vocal fry."

Favoured by celebrities such as the Kardashians, Britney Spears and Katy Perry, vocal fry makes its users sound as if they are trying to gargle their vowels and its widespread adoption by the easily influenced may be having a negative impact on the professional lives of women. One study published in the scientific journal Plos One stated, "relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable." The study suggested that young American women should refrain from the practice in order to maximize labour market opportunities.

Recently, famed feminist Naomi Wolf chimed in on vocal fry in The Guardian, urging women to resist the hoarseness habit, which she observed has joined other mannerisms such as run-on sentences and breathiness to undermine women's authority.

The reaction to her column sparked outrage among some feminists. Some argue that these new vocal patterns are "powerful," citing the celebrities who use them as highly successful business women. Others suggest that the asking women to assume more assertive voices plays into the antiquated notion that the they need to emulate a male voice, which is naturally deeper and historically considered more authoritative, as Shari Graydon eloquently argued in these pages a few days ago.

A third option is to avoid turning this into a feminist issue altogether.

Sure, some celebrities may have earned millions by sounding as if they've smoked a dozen cigarettes for breakfast, but they also make a living taking semi-nude selfies and turning them into coffee table books. The average woman in business operates in a completely different environment, with its own set of rules. Using a tone of voice that appears indifferent or bored won't produce the same results.

"In a professional environment, as in all environments, people make instant subconscious assumptions about each other from the sound of the human voice," said Bonnie Gross, president of Speech Science, which offers public speaking programs.

The voice, she explained, is like an iceberg, with parts you see and hear above the water line and parts you don't see but you know are there. The obvious parts offer clues to the speaker's gender, nationality and general age. The aspects we react to subconsciously include the speaker's confidence level, maturity, sincerity and intelligence, among other things.

"Habits like vocal fry, up tone, pitch too high, and breathiness, can undermine a person's true value," Ms. Gross said.

So what does a vocal fry say about you? Judith Humphrey, founder of The Humphrey Group, which offers communication and leadership training services, said the habit makes it sound as if the speaker is "running out of fuel or ideas."

"Essentially, it is an act of rebellion against completing sentences – a desire not to put oneself out there completely," said Ms. Humphrey, author of Speaking as a Leader and Taking the Stage. She noted that voice instructors at the Humphrey Group say the sound gives the impression that the speaker "doesn't care, is too cool to care or is bored by everyone and everything."

This impression hurts the women who use it. Instead of listening to what the speaker is saying, her audience hears a tone that "reeks of falseness," Ms. Humphrey said.

"Our voices literally speak for us and about us. The tone of our voice tells our audience whether we believe in what we are saying or are just mouthing the words. It tells them whether we are excited, engaged, inspired, or just plain bored. The pace of our voice tells our audience whether we are nervous or not, confident or not … It is our voice that brings our ideas to life and brings us to the hearts and minds of our audience. For these reasons, we spend a lot of time helping women unlock the power of their voices," she said.

Emulating a Kardashian in appearance and tone may work for a select few, but for the vast majority of professional women, exuding strength, confidence and conviction in our tone is a better bet.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises.

Twitter: @LeahEichler

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe