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People vary pitch, tone of their voice depending on listener's social status, study finds

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit on July 7.

No one taped the first face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimer Putin of Russia last Friday, so we have no audio recording of the voices of the two men during their discussion.

But if we did, the sound of their voices might give us some clues about which man dominated the meeting. For, according to a recent study from an international team of researchers, people adjust the pitch and tone of their voice depending on how they perceive the social status of the person with whom they’re talking, as well as how dominant they feel in the relationship.

When talking with individuals we view as having a higher social status, we generally speak with a higher-pitched voice, the study reports. But if we perceive ourselves as dominant — as someone who can successfully use coercion and intimidation to acquire social status — we are less likely to vary our pitch and will speak in a lower tone, even when conversing with someone of high social status.

The study also found that people who see themselves as having prestige  — as being someone others look up to and whose opinions are also valued — tend not to alter the volume of their voice when talking with others, no matter what status they assign the listener.

Two of the study’s authors, Vikotria Mileva, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of Stirling in Great Britain, and Juan David Leongomez, an assistant professor of evolutionary psychology at El Bosque University in Bogota, Columbia, explain the study’s findings in an article they wrote (with British spellings) for the The Conversation

Dominance and prestige are two ways to acquire high social status. Dominance means taking power by force and coercion (imagine a bully), while prestige is being freely given power due to one’s skills and merits (imagine your favourite teacher).

Men and women might speak with higher-pitched voices towards high status people because a low-pitched voice sounds dominant, particularly in men, while a high-pitched voice sounds relatively submissive. Using a high-pitched voice would signal to an employer that the interviewee is not a threat, and may serve to avoid confrontations.

The differences we found with participants’ self-perceived social status (that is, high dominance equals lower pitch, and high prestige equals constant volume) implies that there is a relationship between self-perception of social status and behaviour towards others. The more dominant you feel, the less you need to worry about other people’s dominance, so you talk how you want. At the same time, the more prestigious you feel the more calm and relaxed you may be, which may be why people started looking up to you in the first place.

Study details

For their study, the researchers recruited 48 University of Stirling students. The volunteers were evenly divided by gender and had a mean age of around 20.

To hide the true nature of the study, the students were told they were testing the effectiveness of a new interviewing technique that didn’t require the interviewee and interviewer to be in the same room. They were shown the images, names and job titles of three different potential male employers, who were presented to the students as real. In actuality, special computer software had generated the images to look highly dominant, highly prestigious or just average (neutral).

Fictitious employee testimonials were also provided for each employer. These testimonials reinforced the dominance, prestige, or ordinariness of the employers.

The students were then told to record responses to three common interview questions for each of the employers. (The order they were shown the employers varied.) They were also told that their responses would be shown and evaluated by the employers.

Afterward, the students provided some basic demographic information and completed a specially designed questionnaire to elicit how they rated themselves in terms of dominance and prestige — and how they rated the three employers.

Key findings

“When being interviewed by the dominant or high prestige employer, our participants’ voices became higher pitched,” Mileva and Leongomez report. “When talking to the neutral employer, they did not change their way of speaking.”

The researchers also uncovered some interesting subtleties among the shifts in pitch.

“We also looked at how different types of questions affect speech characteristics,” they explain. “That is, would people change the way they speak when told to ‘introduce yourself’ compared to when asked ‘how would you approach your boss to discuss a problem with a colleague?’ As you might imagine, the second questions, which is much more interpersonal and also requires someone to discuss a conflict, caused more speech changes than the simple introduction question.” 

Limitations and implications

This study comes with several significant caveats. Most notably, it involved a relatively small group of participants, all of whom were young students attending a single British university. And only a single situation — a job interview — was used. The findings might not be the same if tested with more demographically diverse groups of people and in different kinds of settings.

Still, the findings support previous research that has shown people tend to perceive low voices as more dominant in both men and women. One study found, for example, that when interacting with a perceived competitor, men will lower their voice if they believe they are physically dominant and raise it if they believe they are not.

“Our findings show that we subtly manipulate our voices to suit particular social contexts we are faced with (such as talking to a scary employer),” write Mileva and Leongomez. “We most likely do this without even thinking about it.”

“These manipulations in turn affect the way we are perceived,” they add. “Just like body posture, the language we use, or our facial shape and expressions, our voices are part of the arsenal of signals that affect perceptions of social status."

FMI: The study was published online in the journal PLOS One, where it can be read in full.

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