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People tend to read a lot into voices, including accents

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Margaret Thatcher learned how to speak at a lower pitch to give her voice a more authoritative and “stately” tone.

During several trips overseas in recent months, I’ve been a bit amazed and amused by how many people have mistaken me for a Canadian. That didn’t used to happen.

Could it be that after three decades of living in Minnesota, I’ve finally dropped my East Coast (Maryland) accent and acquired a North-Central one?

With that question in the back of my mind, I read with interest a fascinating article in New Scientist last week about how our voice — including our accent — impacts the perceptions others have of us.

It’s “something that we perhaps all know instinctively, that the voice can be powerfully suggestive,” writes New Scientist editor Tiffany O’Callaghan (with British spellings). “Whether you are eavesdropping from another room or taking a phone call at work, the way someone speaks can paint a clear picture of a person, their personality and even provide a sense of their history. But often, you won’t be aware of this, nor of the way these impressions are influencing your behaviour.”

“It turns out that some of the most subtle effects are also the most potent,” she adds. “They can influence your sexual allure, your political credentials — even your salary.” (U.S. CEOs with slightly deeper voices tend to earn more and work for bigger companies, according to one recent study.)

Interpreting vocal cues

We’re pretty good at determining gender and age from a person’s voice.

“Men’s vocal tracts are up to 20 percent longer than women’s,” writes O’Callaghan, “and men also have larger vocal cords — or vocal folds — causing them to speak about an octave lower, on average.”

As for older people, they tend to speak more slowly and with breathier sounds due to decreased muscle tone, she reports. In fact, age-related vocal traits are so telling that people are generally able to estimate a speaker’s age to within about 10 years, research has shown.

We’re not good, however, at judging a person’s physical and psychological traits from his or her voice.  When we try to deduce people’s heights based on their voices, even our best guesses will be off by about 4 inches, reports O’Callaghan. And when given the task of matching voices to faces, our answers are only slightly better than chance.

“Things get even murkier when we try to read the same cues for psychological, rather than physical traits,” O’Callaghan writes. “Despite our confidence in our judgements, they are often based on crude biases. And as with other types of bias, the consequences can be troubling.”

Accents and bias

And here’s where accents come in. “Nothing shapes our voice-based judgements of a person the way accents can — even if our assumptions can lead us widely astray,” says O’Callaghan. “… The connotations of a particular accent are complex and can influence perceptions of prestige, attractiveness and intelligence.”

They can also influence court decisions, as O’Callaghan explains:

In one study, based on a voice recording, people were more likely to judge a suspect as guilty if he spoke in a regional Birmingham [England] accent rather than a more standard English accent. (People who had “Brummie” accents themselves were excluded from the study.) Also, when people have thick accents that may make them harder to understand, we are less likely to trust what they have to say.

Researchers asked native speakers of English, and non-native speakers who spoke English with either a mild or heavy accent, to record themselves reading statements of trivia. When listening to these recordings, people consistently thought the statements read by those with heavy accents were less likely to be true — even when they were told that all of the trivia was provided by the researchers, not the speakers.

Interestingly, research has shown that getting people to imitate another voice and accent can help overcome these prejudices.

Retraining the voice

Some people — including the late British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher —  undergo vocal training to overcome pitch or accent “problems” with their voice. (Thatcher learned how to speak at a lower pitch to give her voice a more authoritative and “stately” tone.)

The voice is apparently very flexible, and we can adopt a new one, if we’re willing to put in the work. But there are some limits.

“Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be psychological,” writes McCallaghan. “Our voice has grown with us since we first learned to talk. … [It] is as much a part of our identity as our face. In some small way, changing it means becoming a whole new person.”

You betcha.

You’ll find McCallaghan’s article in the July 13-19 issue of New Scientist.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/22/2013 - 10:55 am.

    Midwest does seem to equal Canadian

    When attending the Olympics in 1976 I was wearing an arm sling so I got to meet a lot of the plain clothes security guards when the Princess Ann was competing at the equestrian events. They all asked if I was from the western Ontario because I had the broad Midwestern A.

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