6 Insane Prejudices People Have Based On How You Talk
You have a stupid voice. There, we said it. Everyone knows it and talks about it all of the time. All of your personal and professional failings can be pinned on that two-cats-fighting-in-a-saxophone thing you call a throat.
OK, that might have been too much. Come back. Your voice is fine. We're sorry. No, don't say anything. Just accept our apology wordlessly. Thanks.
It turns out that the world demands certain things of voices -- things that not all of us have. And when we don't have them, the world steps on our little necks for it, which ironically just makes the whole situation worse. Here's how the whole thing goes down.
Women Are Responsible For Our Language Changes, And We Hate Them For It
"Vocal fry" is a phenomenon in which someone's voice gets unusually low and raspy, as if they're dying of thirst. Sexy thirst. Zooey Deschanel and Kim Kardashian are some of the more notable celebrities to speak with it.
This can occur in both men and women; however, these days, it's most often tagged as a feature of young women's speech. Which, of course, means we're shamelessly criticizing them for it. One study found that, while both men and women were judged negatively for speaking with vocal fry, women were judged far more negatively, with respondents suggesting they seemed less trustworthy, less likely to be hired, less educated, and even less attractive.
Scientists responded, "Bwaaaa?"
And then, there's "uptalk," the speech pattern where the voice pitches up at the end of a sentence, making everything sound like a question.
Women exhibiting this type of speech pattern have been made fun of for years; it's a big part of the "Valley Girl" stereotype. People think it makes the speaker sound uncertain and less competent. Again, studies have found that both men and women use uptalk; it's just that women seem to be far more criticized for it.
So, what's happening here? There's evidence that women are the ones who are the primary innovators in how our language changes. There are a few possible reasons for this, including their more extensive social networks or their role as the primary caregivers during infancy. But, no matter how young women develop new linguistic trends, they quickly and repeatedly run into the same obstacle: old white guys -- quite literally, in this case. Linguists actually have a term for them: Non-Mobile Older Rural Males, or NORMs.
Each wrinkle represents yet another YOLO-ing whippersnapper who won't quit twerking on his dadgum lawn.
NORMs hate change and are typically the last to adopt new manners of speaking. Linguists use them as a sort of linguistic time capsule, letting us know where the language was. The rest of us use them as a source for crotchety editorials, complaining about the way those danged-nabbit young women are ruining the language. But, this process is inevitable; our language has always changed. There's a reason we don't speak like Shakespeare anymore, and we apparently have young women to thank for it.
Accents Change How Physically Attractive We Find Others
Everyone with a French accent is an impossibly sexy beast: all red lipstick and striped shirts and berets and nice, phallic baguettes. But, we digress, because some accents aren't so lucky. Studies have found that for American listeners, Asian accents are less attractive. And for people in the U.K., the Birmingham accent is considered particularly loathsome. The sexiest thing a Brummie can say is literally nothing at all.
But, even though many other languages have similar sounds to French, they don't carry the same perception of sexiness. It turns out that the attractiveness of an accent has less to do with the sound it makes when it's spilling from a person's mouth and more to do with the associations we make with the culture it originates from. Paris is considered a romantic place, so we see French accents as romantic. However, because it's based on cultural perceptions, these attitudes shift with the culture of the listener. The French don't find the French accent so sexy -- that's how all of their gross exlovers talk. So, what do they find sexy? Italians, with their singsongy voice and massive sunglasses. Pepe Le Pew, the renowned sex predator skunk, has a French accent everywhere in the world but France. There, he sounds Italian.
Where he's known as Pepe Le Problematico.
Deciding whether to snuggle with someone based entirely on their voice is one thing, but accent-judging can turn much more sinister. Another study found that listeners were less likely to believe statements when read by someone with a different accent. In fact, even when subjects were told the experiment was testing the effects of accents on "perceived truthfulness," subjects still rated speakers with different accents as less trustworthy.
And the exact same thing can trick us into thinking someone is more trustworthy than they are. This shows up in movies, where characters speak with the "Received Pronunciation" accent from England, because it's perceived by many to suggest wisdom and trustworthiness. That's why even though Gandalf is an immortal Maiar from the distant realm of Valinor, he speaks with a very proper English accent. It makes him seem more authoritative and trustworthy.
Plus, the guy playing him is English. So, there's that.
We Want People With Deeper Voices In Leadership Positions -- Even Women
Nothing sounds more soothing to our ears than the silky bass of a deep voice. We love these baritone-voiced champions and, at their command, will cast their nasally, squealing counterparts into the gutter.
A man familiar with gutters.
While the appeal of a man with a deep voice might sound obvious, it turns out that we prefer all our leaders, including women, to speak in a baritone. In one study, people listened to 20 "candidates" -- 10 men and 10 women -- campaigning for positions on a PTA or school board. All of the voices were manipulated to sound both high and low-pitched. Both men and women favored the female candidates with the deeper voices.
Sith Lord and feared PTA tyrant.
A similar study found that CEOs who have deeper voices make more money, last longer in their jobs, and run larger companies. But, why is it that a deep voice gets a person so far in life? We aren't exactly sure, but one theory suggests that a lower voice implies that the speaker is stronger and more competent because of the larger torso that all strong and competent people are presumed to have. Another suggests it's because our voice lowers with age, implying that with age comes wisdom.
This preference for deep voices is so deeply ingrained, it even messes with our heads when listening to our own voices. We all cringe with embarrassment when we hear recordings of our voice, like when we overhear ourselves on a friend's voicemail (and not just because we left it while drunk at 2 a.m.). Why does our voice sound so whiny when it always sounds so perfectly low and creamy in our head? Well, when we speak, our vocal chords and our airways and our entire skulls are vibrating, interfering with the actual sound vibrations our ears normally pick up, making our brain hear a lower-sounding voice than what the outside world hears. Thanks to something called the mere exposure effect, we dramatically prefer this version.
True torture isn't waterboarding -- it's forcing your captive to listen to every voicemail they've ever left.
The good news is that the mere-exposure effect works both ways. People are used to hearing your voice the way it is. If they were trapped inside your skull, they would actually be quite unhappy -- if only because it's cramped and wet in there.
We Invent Accents For People Who Don't Have Them
And if you think you're in the clear just because you're a native-born English speaker with a perfectly unaccented voice, surprise, we're still going to get you. Because we won't just discriminate over how people speak, we'll discriminate over how we think they'll speak.
Linguists call this reverse linguistic stereotyping. When English speakers are told that someone isn't a native English speaker, they actually have greater difficulty understanding them, even if the person speaking doesn't have a foreign accent at all. We just up and decide that someone is totally unintelligible, a belief that doesn't get shoved aside by pesky little things such as actual evidence.
"You have cancer."
"What? No speekee el Spanish-o. DO. YOU. TALK. EL. ENGLISH-O?"
"You have two weeks to live."
A number of studies have tested this with students. For instance, when college students are played audio recordings, some purportedly by a teacher with a Chinese name and some by a teacher with an American name, they remember less of the information that came from that fake Chinese person. The words are harder to understand because of the accent that doesn't exist. What is this, quantum racism?
An Accent Can Change The Meaning Of What Someone Says
An accent can do more than change what you think of the speaker. It can change the actual meaning of what you're hearing.
At the University Of Southern California, researchers studied subjects' reactions to situations after priming them with voices using different accents. Specifically, participants were shown a group of fish and then asked whether they thought one fish was leading the group or being chased.
Is it Braveheart or The Blues Brothers?
Chinese-Americans, when presented with a Chinese accent, reported the lead fish as being chased. Hearing the Chinese accent put them in a mindset that reflected their Chinese heritage, which is more group-oriented. But, when Chinese-Americans were presented this scenario by someone speaking in an American accent, they saw the fish as a leader, reflecting American culture's passion for individualism and hunky, heroic fish.
And OK, that seems like it has limited practical effects outside the world of professional fish assayers. However, what was most interesting was that when this experiment was repeated on plain-vanilla Americans, hearing a foreign accent didn't make them consider a foreign cultural perspective more. It actually made them dig in harder to their American perspective -- they were even more likely to see the fish as a leader.
Strangely, American listeners also strongly felt we should build a wall to keep foreign fish out.
Which implies that even if you're genuinely open-minded, respectful, and super not racist, as soon as you even hear a foreign accent, it all goes out the window. You self-identify even harder with your own heritage, preventing you from hearing whatever crazy foreign idea is being explained to you. Even if their crazy foreign idea is, "Please stop ignoring the words I am saying."
We Think Gay People Sound A Certain Way (And We're Wrong)
Gay people face higher rates of workplace harassment, make less money, and can also be just straight-up fired for being gay in many states. There have been multiple cases of people losing their jobs at least partially due to their "gay accent."
A gay accent that might not actually exist.
Multiple studies have failed to find a correlation between lisps and sexuality in adolescent boys. Researchers attempting to see if voice correlates with sexuality asked adults to identify men as gay or straight based on the sound of their voices. Listeners reportedly thought that the voices of gay people were more high-pitched and melodious, but could identify the sexuality of subjects with a success rate only slightly better than at random. These studies found that what people believe is a "gay" voice is just one that sounds more feminine, and the studies theorize that our voice is influenced by environmental factors far more than our sexuality. If someone is raised by his mother, he will likely have a more feminine voice, regardless of his sexuality.
"Got called into the boss's office today. Guess who's about to be raised by his mother again?"
So, where does this idea of the gay accent come from? The best guess linguists have is that it's a form of code-switching. Lots of people do this when they speak, adopting the same speaking patterns that their peers do. This can mean developing or shedding accents, using slang they wouldn't otherwise use, or, for gay men, adopting a campier speaking style when in their community.
So, there is a gay accent of sorts! It's just that not all gay men use it -- some straight men use it, and also, apparently, anyone can lose their job for it.
Nice work, everybody.
Kevin's parents said he wasn't living up to his potential, but even they had to admit they were wrong after they started following him on Twitter.
For more ways we don't understand our own mouth holes, check out 5 Ways You Didn't Realize The English Language Is Defective and 5 Reasons The English Language Makes No Freaking Sense.
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