3 Things Your Voice Tells the World About You
... including the state of your relationship.
Posted Feb 16, 2016
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “the human voice is the organ of the soul,” he didn't have the good fortune of scientific studies on which to draw. Yet more than 100 years after his death, research supports his statement. Our voices can communicate much more than spoken words—it can convey emotion, physical attractiveness, and even personality traits. It can also impart other kinds of information outside of our conscious awareness.
Here are three surprising things our voices reveal to others when we may not even realize it:
1. “I'm cheating on you.”
As it turns out, men and women alter their voices when speaking to lovers instead of friends—and these shifts can potentially betray infidelity. Take a study that investigated how individuals modulate their voices when speaking to romantic partners vs. same-sex friends during short telephone conversations. Researchers asked 24 people in the early blush of a relationship (i.e., the "honeymoon" phase) to phone their romantic partners as well as a close same-sex friend. In both instances, they were specifically instructed to ask, "How are you?” and “What are you doing?” These conversations were recorded, and then 80 judges rated the callers' voices. What did the researchers find? When callers were talking to their romantic partners, they sounded more pleasant, sexy, and romantically interested than when they were talking to their same-sex friends. (Remarkably, in some cases, the judges could accurately assess whether the caller was talking to a lover or a friend after listening to only 2 seconds of the conversation.) These qualities can tell you whether someone is talking to a friend—or someone who is more than a friend.
2. “I'm bigger than you are.”
Research has found that in men, the sound of one's voice can indicate physical shape and size. Consider a study in which investigators recruited 50 heterosexual men. They took vocal samples from each participant, in which they recited the English vowels "a," "e," "i," and "o." They also took physical measurements—the circumference of the skull, the neck at the Adam's apple, shoulders, chest, hips, and height. The results revealed that having a low voice was associated with having a larger body shape—and specifically, a bigger upper body. In addition, weight was negatively correlated with voice pitch. The authors say that these results lend support for the “good genes” theory, which argues that low voice pitch in men is an indicator of high genetic quality and hormonal health—which would have been attractive to potential mates over the course of evolutionary history.
3. “I'm fertile.”
Research suggests that when women are fertile, their voice pitch goes up. Investigators measured the pitch of 69 women across their ovulatory cycles, and found that their voices went up in certain social contexts when they were at peak fertility. This study provides support for the theory that people find a higher voice pitch in women more feminine—and that this pitch is more attractive to potential mates. It is also part of a suite of changes that women may unconsciously engage in when they are highly fertile, including maximizing their looks, in order to attract men of superior genetic quality for their progeny. Studies have similarly found that women will walk with a sexier gait and wear more makeup during ovulation.
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of a forthcoming book on dating, mating, and relationships.
- Vocal cues of ovulation in human females. Bryant GA & Haselton MG. Biology Letters, 2008.
- Relationships between vocal characteristics and body size and shape in human males: an evolutionary explanation for a deep male voice. Evans S, Neave N, and Wakelin D. Biological Psychology 2006 May;72(2):160-3. Epub 2005 Nov 8.
- People Will Know We Are in Love: Evidence of Differences Between Vocal Samples Directed Toward Lovers and Friends. Farley SD, Hughes SM, LaFayette JN. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, September 2013, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 123-138.