Up high or down low: what a woman’s voice says about her

In a trailer for the film The Iron Lady, inanimate hair is the first step in Margaret Thatcher’s transformation into her titular persona.

But there’s another thing: “The main problem is your voice,” says a male adviser in a suit. “It’s too high and has no authority.” Meryl Streep as Thatcher drops her words a clenched octave and says, “That’s the tone if we want to strike.”

Of course, it was the rest of Britain that started striking, but she got the tone right. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a woman of Thatcher’s stature speaking in a squeaky little voice, despite the rodent teeth.

The up-high, up-talking voice is not generally considered the soundtrack of world leadership, no matter how substantial the content of that voice. It’s the sound of a child, which means invisibility. Thus, when I don’t recognize a number on caller ID, I use my most West Coast, girlish, squeaky voice (sadly, this isn’t far from my regular voice).

My tremulous “Helloooo?” usually prompts telephone solicitors to ask, “Is your mother home?” I can truthfully reply “No” and we’re done.

But to be taken seriously, I put on a certain voice the way I put on a certain dress, a voice that lashes my Valley Girl intonations. I try to meet anyone I need to impress down in the lower registers. It’s a good strategy, according to a Dutch study that had 81 students read a neutral passage in three different voice ranges, then rank their feelings about the sound of their own voice. The results suggested that lower voices are associated with power, and lowering one’s own voice can actually induce feelings of power – deepening the voice may be a form of self-help.

Read the full story in The Globe and Mail.


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