Benjamin Disraeli is credited with having said that there is no index of character so sure as the voice. Indeed, it's not what we say, but how we say it that's important. When we open our mouths we reveal all kinds of things about ourselves that have nothing at all to do with the words we are uttering.

The importance of this area of nonverbal communication was borne out historically in April 1974 when Richard Nixon sent written transcripts rather than audiotapes of his secret White House conversations to the House Judiciary Committee investigating his possible impeachment. Members of the Committee quite rightly complained that written transcripts could not convey the full and correct meaning of an utterance since they lacked the additional nonverbal cues that one derives from the voice: inflection, stress, context, and other such nuances. They demanded the actual tapes because they contained this vital information. The landmark decision to provide the Committee the tapes eventually led to Nixon's resignation, but it also legitimized paralinguistic communication-the study of voice and how words are said.
Paralinguistic cues can give clues to our stress level, age, height, weight, socio-economic status, anxiety, gender, personality characteristics, and culture. In fact, our voices are so unique voiceprints can be used to identify individuals today in the same way that DNA has been used for forensic purposes. Take, for instance, recent events in the Persian Gulf. The opening salvos of the 2003 War in Iraq were aimed at a bunker complex in which it was believed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was meeting with his sons. When Hussein showed up on television shortly thereafter, there was some belief that a body double was being used to fool the Iraqi population (and the Allied forces) into believing that he was still alive. To verify Hussein's status, U.S. intelligence began analyzing voiceprints of his speech, comparing them to earlier television addresses. Other nonverbals couldn't be trusted. One can manipulate the facial hair, expression, or even appearance, but controlling vocal cues is much more difficult!

We make myriad judgments about people based on their vocal cues alone. Studies have found high correlation among listeners regarding the personality traits of speakers.

It's amazing how much information the voice can carry. It has been shown that from voice alone, listeners can accurately distinguish between female and male speakers. In one study, for instance, listeners who heard twenty speakers pronounce six recorded vowels were able to correctly identify the sex of the speaker 96 percent of the time.

Women communicate a level of authenticity through the expressive variation of their vocal cues. They can demonstrate real sincerity, show their true feelings, and exhibit empathy in what they say. The variation inherent in the female voice conveys charisma. This is a great asset for public speaking. Women also talk to bond and connect, to fill up the empty space in order to make others feel more comfortable. Indeed, filling the silence can increase the comfort level for everyone, including the women themselves! If we don't have a good comfort level, we don't have good communication-our interactions become strained and forced. Women engage in "relationship talk" (classically called "chit-chat") to help them warm up and ease the conversation into an easy, spontaneous flow.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always go over well with the men folk. In my own family, my 16-year-old son, Armand, and even Geoff, my significant other, wave me on to speak faster. My son complains that my voicemail messages go on and on. Geoff will cue me to, "Cut to the chase!" Or ask "What's the bottom line?" Incidentally, both of those expressions are born of male culture, and I believe are a result of men's need to be goal- rather than process-oriented ("Just the facts, ma'am."). To a woman, the conveying of the "story" is as important as the story itself, but most men don't care about the details! They want to get to the bottom of things.

Sad to say, some women can't tolerate pauses in conversations and will talk to fill up the empty silence. This is often perceived as "gibberish." Unfortunately, in the process they undermine their credibility. In fact, several other paralinguistic features of women's nonverbal communication work against them.

Take, for instance, the notion of being soft-spoken. How often have we heard this term applied to a man? Almost never. No, it's women who keep their voices small and delicate. Part of that is biological, as explained above. However, when men and women's voices are compared to the respective size of their vocal tracts, women talk as if they are physically smaller than they actually are. Their voices are pitched to the upper range, the decibel level is reduced, and vowel resonances are thinned. These paralinguistic elements are not the effect of biology but of socialization and learning-the imperative to be soft-spoken.

In fact, according to communication professors Deborah Borisoff and Lisa Merrill, "Women, like children, have been taught that it is preferable for them to be seen rather than to be heard." Following this line of reasoning, Borisoff and Merrill point out in The Power to Communicate that when not held in check, women's louder voices are considered abrasive or displeasing: "carping, brassy, nagging, shrill, strident, or grating." And female conversation may be referred to as "babbling, blabbing, gabbing, or chatting"-none very serious endeavors. Unfortunately, however, a woman's quiet voice is rather ineffectual-a credibility robber.

The soft-spoken woman's voice doesn't carry. She threatens no one; she may lack sufficient force and volume to speak up effectively and convincingly. Women who are hampered by the need to sound feminine may adopt a high-pitched "little girl" voice, an artificially "sexy," breathy voice, or a volume so low as to be barely audible. In any case, the "soft spoken" woman is at a marked disadvantage if she attempts to negotiate a contract, persuade a jury, or present a report. She risks being perceived as unconvincing.

You are reading

He Speaks, She Speaks

Nonverbal Communication and Strategic Flexibility

Strategic flexibility is the primary characteristic of successful people.

Some Thoughts on Changing for the Better

Women and Men in the Workplace

Are Women Queen Bees?

Queen Bees exist but they are far less common than we think.