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How Is Your Voice Perceived?

Voice and style of speech—including pesky filler words—reveal a lot about a speaker.

The articulation of speech can reveal almost as much information about a speaker as the content itself. From pitch and speed to filler words and accents, vocal features influence how one's message, and even one's identity, is perceived. An understanding of all such cues can help speakers communicate most effectively.

Pitch Perfect

Individuals with low-pitched voices are generally perceived as more confident, strong, and authoritative. This perception also ties into attraction; women find men with low voices more appealing. The appeal has biological roots, says Casey Klofstad of the University of Miami, who studies how biology influences politics. Pitch is determined by the size of one's voice box and vocal chords—just as plucking a short string on a harp produces a high note and strumming a long string produces a low tone. Testosterone enlarges vocal chords, which lends credence to the belief that low voices signal a more aggressive, dominant, and confident individual.

People may take pitch into account when determining which leaders they prefer and ultimately elect, according to studies by Klofstad and his colleagues. But is the signal reliable? Are leaders with deeper voices actually more effective? Klofstad's hunch, based on recent findings he published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, is no. His team collected audio clips of each member of the 2008-2009 Congress as well as a "power ranking" created by a think tank that distilled measures, including seniority, committee membership, and legislative achievements, into a final score. No correlation emerged between a deeper voice and successful leadership.

The connection between pitch and leadership may be more perception than reality, but anyone hoping to boost speaking power can still capitalize on the link. For example, the jitters that often accompany public speaking tend to push the voice into a higher register. "Speakers in a public setting may want to modulate their tone of voice," Klofstad says. "Listeners should also be aware of how subtle vocal signals influence how we treat each other. They may unjustly affect our decision making."

Filler Thriller

Speech is littered with sounds that are seemingly useless: ums, likes, you knows. But such sounds are actually tiny conversational tools, gently guiding dialogue forward. Filler words (uhs and ums) signal that the speaker is having trouble producing a thought, and they ask the listener to stay tuned while the problem is resolved. Fillers also alert listeners to an interesting or important remark, because they pay greater attention to the word that follows a filler word, says Jean Fox Tree, a psycholinguist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Research also suggests that filler words can aid listeners in understanding and remembering a speaker's message.

Each filler word and discourse marker (like, well, I mean, you know) carries its own message, Fox Tree says. Uh signals a short pause. Um precedes a longer pause. Like expresses a concept loosely. You know implies that information will be elided. These utterances can therefore elicit specific responses. For example, an uh or um often prompts a listener to offer a word as a suggestion to help the speaker complete the thought. Filler words and discourse markers maintain communication during delays in a way silence cannot. "Pauses don't explain gaps to the addressee," Fox Tree says. "It's like a dropped call."

Some evidence suggests that filler words are perceived negatively by listeners and that speakers try to limit their production. But what matters most is context, says Stanford University psycholinguist Herbert Clark. When one is expected to be prepared, such as when delivering an address, or to be precise, such as when interviewing for a job, it's important to avoid filler words and discourse markers. But during casual conversation, stifling these sounds can come across as inauthentic. "Imagine someone proposing to you entirely fluently, entirely fully formed," Clark says. "It would be the worst proposal."


An Ideal Tempo

Fast talkers radiate charisma—or at least that's the impression they make, says psychologist Hans Rutger Bosker, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. That perception likely taps into the connection between speed and fluency; speech rate accurately predicts a non-native speaker's command over language.

But speakers can cross a fine line: Talking too rapidly makes one sound nervous and keeps listeners from having time to fully grasp the message. If one naturally speaks at a fast clip, it may be advantageous to slow down when delivering an important message, such as during a professional presentation.

In many scenarios, though, the proper course of action emerges automatically. "I speak differently to my 4-year-old daughter than I do to my wife," Bosker says. "We do this naturally." The speech rates of conversational partners also tend to converge; the faster speaker slows down, and the slower speaker speeds up, Bosker explains. Scientists traditionally believed this tendency was due to social congruence, the desire to be similar to others and find common ground. But a recent study by Bosker and his colleagues suggests that in addition to social factors, people modulate speech rate to aid the listener's comprehension.

The Accent Alarm

Accents also shape how a speaker is perceived, but perceptions are notoriously subjective. One person might perceive those with an accent from a foreign country as more intelligent and those with a familiar regional accent as more approachable. Someone from a different place may form entirely different impressions. However, inferences about credibility have been well studied, says Silke Paulmann, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex. People with accents are generally perceived as less knowledgeable, confident, and trustworthy than those who share one's native tongue.

This belief is likely rooted in the evolutionary tendency to xenophobia. "People have an inherent bias, which they may need to fight against, of favoring members of their own group," says Marc Pell, director of the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. "Accent is one way we can very quickly decide if someone is different." This bias begins early—one study found that 10-month-old infants reliably selected toys presented by native speakers rather than accented speakers, and 2-year-old children showed the same preference for sharing toys.

But sustaining the bias through adulthood can have a detrimental effect, Pell says. During a job interview, a candidate's accent may subconsciously lead the hiring manager to conclude that the applicant isn't up to the job. In a traffic stop, a driver's accent may subconsciously prompt a police officer to become suspicious or even reach for a gun. Listeners, especially those in positions of authority, should probe the reasons for their decisions to ensure that they are fair, Pell says.

Pell and his colleagues recently explored how to overcome the accent bias. The researchers recorded speakers with and without accents who sounded confident, neutral, or doubtful as they made statements such as, "He would make a good leader" or, "She has access to the building." Participants perceived the accented speakers as less believable—unless they had an especially confident tone. Displaying confidence may be an effective way to offset the prejudice prompted by an accent.

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