Women often accuse men of missing many nonverbal cues, and my research shows this to be true. However, males do focus on the vocal aspects of what is being said—the paralinguistics. And one conclusion that can be drawn from research on vocal quality is that women tend to be more specifically judged on voice traits than are men. Perhaps this is an extension of the fact that women are judged more (and judge others more) on their physical attractiveness. A woman’s voice is yet another dimension of her attractiveness.

Men react negatively to female vocal characteristics that undermine authority: high pitch, slow pace, or increased inflection.  British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spent hours with a voice tutor doing “humming” exercises to lower the unpleasantly high pitch of her speaking voice.  In my survey about female communication weaknesses, men were often critical of female voices: “Women need to speak with more strength of voice and presence.”   “Their pitch needs to be lower and their speed is too slow.”  Indeed, voice is one of the biggest contributors to women losing credibility in the workplace. Some women use their voices like little girls, with attention grabbers at the beginning of their statements in expressions such as: Gasp. . “You’ll never guess what happened to me!” 

Unfortunately women’s soft voices also often open up the opportunity for interruption. It is feminine to speak in a small voice. I remember watching almost every head turn in a seminar in which a woman with a big, bellowing voice raised her hand to ask a question.

It was as if everyone needed to check out the source of this huge voice. In contrast, one of my clients had recruited what it considered to be the top engineering candidate from a premier university in the country. Lin had a Ph.D. in a specialized area of engineering. She was also Chinese. Because Lin spoke in accordance with Chinese cultural rules, her voice was even softer than that of her American female counterparts. Unfortunately, people could barely hear her. So here was the dilemma: Should she talk loudly like American men, or maintain her culturally prescribed soft quality? In consultation with me and few of her male colleagues, we developed a few strategies for Lin. She could sit more centrally at meetings (literally making her the center of attention), formally place herself on the written agenda, or even have one of the male engineers get the floor for her with questions such as:  “Isn’t this Lin’s area of expertise?” Or, “Lin what’s your opinion on this?”

Because women are more expressive, they tend to lose standing with men who prefer the voice to be more monotonic.  Women often report to me, “He tells me, ‘Don’t get so excited.’”  To counteract this, they must make a greater distinction between their home and work voices.  They should use diplomacy, as they are working in a different culture.  For instance, they can lower the pitch of their voices when they want to sound more authoritative.

Adapted from Audrey's book: You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (Prentice Hall, 2004)

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