In late May, science journal PLOS One published a study about an apparently alarming speech trend called “vocal fry.” Speakers who exhibit it drop their voices down to the lowest pitches, causing the vocal chords to flutter, which creates a “creaking” sound.
The data showed the phenomenon could harm the prospects of job seekers, especially young women.
Many members of the media — like The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, whose story Business Insider republished — covered the news. Some linguists, however, criticise the study’s methodology and claim vocal fry frequently occurs in everyday speech.
The study included sound files of seven men and women saying, “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” two times — once normally and once with vocal fry. Then, 400 men and 400 women listened and answered questions about the speakers, as shown below.
With vocal fry, people’s voices drop below “normal” levels, and, at least according to the study, that makes them less hirable. For example, study participants who reported making hiring judgements
preferred a normal female or normal male voice 87% of the time over those with vocal fry, mostly because they found that person less trustworthy.
Opinions grew harsher with women. Take a look at the chart below, showing female voices in the left columns.
In her reporting, Khazan juxtaposed both male and female examples with and without vocal fry from the study on SoundCloud. Listen here and decide for yourself.
Many linguistic studies intending to compare opinions on a type of speech will alter human voices electronically, Christian DiCanio, a researcher at Haskin Laboratories at Yale University, told Business Insider.
But the PLOS One study did not, namely because machines would have a hard time reproducing the irregular sound waves present in vocal fry. Instead, men and women, whose voices the study featured, reproduced vocal fry themselves, introducing their own interpretation.
“If you listen to someone with a heavy New York City accent or a heavy Texas accent and try to imitate that, you’d sound like a caricature of that accent,” DiCanio said. “That’s exactly what happened here.”
Simply put, the vocal fry voices in the study were “imitated” — not true vocal fry. The speakers’ interpretation of vocal fry altered more than one variable within their speech, and thus, researchers can’t quite claim their findings occurred as a result of vocal fry.
First of all, the duration of almost every speaker’s sample sentence increased with the imitated vocal fry, according to DiCanio. They drew out their words.
The phrase “thank you” in both examples also gives important context for the study. In neither version does it contain true vocal fry, but the pitch with imitated vocal fry is much lower than the normal sentence. “What that tells you is that speakers are not only trying to imitate vocal fry but lower their pitch in general,” DiCanio explained.
In reality, both examples contained vocal fry, according to DiCanio. “It’s found in speech in all sorts of people,” he said. “In fact, there’s a collection of speech found on the radio, and it was coded for vocal fry, and it’s found everywhere.”
But statistics don’t lie — so why did people find the vocal fry heard in the study so much less desirable than regular speech? The voices just sounded odd, DiCanio explained. When people don’t sound like themselves, others naturally don’t trust them as much, making the speakers less likely to land a job.
The fact that the study found this effect more pronounced for women also goes against previous research. Back in 2010, Ikuko Patricia Yuasa found that vocal fry, also known as “creaky voice,” was most used by women who were urban, upwardly mobile, and fairly hirable.
“If you’re just speaking with vocal fry that’s natural, I would think people wouldn’t notice it much, and it wouldn’t affect your job prospects,” DiCanio explained. “What people really cue into is when you don’t sound like yourself.”
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