what your voice reveals about you
In surprising ways your own voice draws a picture of you. Here, say the experts, is
► Churchill's rousing tones ► Hitler's hysterical raving
► Mae West's sexy sibilants ► Conn Smythe's angry roars—
they've all done something moving and magical
WHAT DOES your voice reveal? Whenever you speak, your listeners hear much more than the bare message your words convey. From your tone, your accent, your gestures, the way you gabble or bellow or whisper or whine, they form opinions of you. How accurate are the clues your voice carries? Can it really tell people something about your mood and your background, your occupation, attitudes and ambitions? Is it a true reflection of your character?
“My impression is that there is a real relationship between voice and personality,” says Donalda McGeachy, speech pathologist at the Toronto Western Hospital. Esme Crampton, director of the Manitoba theatre school of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, agrees; “Your voice is literally the sound of your personality.”
The kind of person you are determines to some extent the kind of voice you have, and your voice influences the kind of person you can become. Whether or not other people can judge you from your voice, the fact that they believe that they can colors all your relationships and this affects every part of your life — your job. your marriage, your friendships and your own feelings about yourself.
“We all react to voices, even though we don’t always realize it,” says Mrs. A. B. Hall, of the Neighborhood Workers Association of Toronto. “There isn’t enough stress put on the importance of voices in family relationships.”
According to James F. Hickling, president of Canadian Personnel Consultants, “The media of mass communication are becoming increasingly oral. Nowadays an executive has to get up and say something. One characteristic successful people have in common is that the quality of their voices conveys confidence and enthusiasm. Undoubtedly voice has an effect in terms of business success. A good voice helps a man as much as a good figure helps a woman.”
“A good voice is compelling,” says Eva Langbord, supervisor of casting, CBC-TV. “No matter what business you’re in, a voice with good tone and color and personality is a tremendous asset.” Stage traditions have helped to form our stereotyped ideas about voices. We connect a deep pipeorgan voice with manliness, a Dietrich drawl with
sex and sophistication. A clipped military accent carries authority and a gentle murmur suggests modesty and respect. When Professor T. H. Pear, of the University of Manchester, broadcast the voices of nine people in 1927 and asked listeners to describe the speakers, he found that many people could guess approximately what sort of character, age, appearance and occupation went with each voice.
Miss Langbord says, “Immediately you hear a voice it establishes a certain kind of personality for you. There is always a reaction; you are either drawn or. in extreme cases, repelled. But it really isn’t fair to judge people too much on this kind of quick evaluation.” One person may sound warm and friendly while another, equally kind, sounds deceptively harsh. A loud voice may mean that the speaker is aggressive or simply that he grew up with a large family all clamoring for attention.
“The idea that you can always spot an effeminate man or a masculine woman by their voices is a myth,” says Dr. C. M. Godfrey, director of the course in speech pathology at the University of Toronto.
Voices are so pecul-
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“A person ís invariably shocked when he hears his
own voice on a record*
iarly individual that we can scarcely imagine Churchill with the voice of Hitler, Charles Boyer with the voice of Fred Allen, or Nathan Cohen with the voice of Foster Hewitt. We instantly recognize a familiar voice, and even Rawhide can't fool his own children by disguising his voice on the telephone.
Why has each person a different voice? Do the pitch and volume and quality of your voice depend on your physical constitution or your temperament? Do you speak in a certain way because you were born with certain vocal equipment, or because you copied your parents?
Your body, your disposition and the family and society in which you grew up all influence the way you talk. The limitations of your voice are set by physical factors: the size and shape of your head, chest, larynx and vocal cords; the speed with which your muscles work; your powers of discrimination of pitch, loudness, tone and rhythm; and such special physiological problems as deafness, brain damage and other results of illness or injury. So it naturally follows that a tiny woman with a small larynx and thin, short vocal cords will have a voice less deep and powerful than a barrel-chested man with long heavy vocal cords.
Within these physical limits, the way you use your voice reflects your temperament and background. Shrillness often reveals tension and insecurity, and a flat, listless tone may echo a dull mind. Even passing moods — embarrassment, boredom. exhilaration — are subtly communicated by hesitation or a false emphasis. And, most important of all, from infancy you model your voice on those you hear. This is why children often sound uncannily like their parents — so much so that a young man telephoning his girl may blush to find himself whispering affectionate nothings to her mother.
The fact that your voice is largely shaped by habit and imitation means that you can make major changes in the way you speak, either by deliberate training or by unconsciously changing your personality. Any change in you is likely to be accompanied by a change in your voice, and changing your voice may affect your personality.
Jan Chamberlain, a speech teacher in Toronto, says, ‘'People make the mistake of taking their voices for granted. Barring any physical defect, which is really rare, any human being can improve his voice, and this can sometimes change his life completely.”
Authorities agree that the best way for anyone to speak is in his own natural voice, pitched near the bottom of its normal range and freed of intrusive mannerisms and psychological distortions. They define a bad voice as one that seems unsuitable for the speaker’s age, sex, occupation and surroundings, draws attention away from the content of his speech, sounds unpleasant or is difficult to understand.
“The object of teaching is not to create a standard voice but rather to develop the voice suited to each personality. Ideally anyone who has learned to speak well shouldn't sound as if he'd been taught, ’ says Esme Crampton, the theatrical teacher.
Most speech teachers begin by explaining how your voice is produced. Just behind your Adam's apple are the vocal
cords, two membranous folds less than an inch long, stretched across your larynx from front to back. As you breathe, they alternately open and close to allow your breath to pass through freely. When you speak, they come tightly together and dam up your breath, which forces them to vibrate. Their rate of vibration depends on the supply of breath from your lungs and on the action of the muscles in your larynx. When the vocal cords are tightened they vibrate rapidly, and the pitch of your voice rises; when they are slackened they vibrate slowly and the pitch falls. A stronger blast of air tautens the vocal cords and sends the pitch of your voice up. and so it rises as you talk more loudly unless you compensate by relaxing your vocal cords.
The quality of your voice also depends on the way it reverberates in the hollow spaces of your throat and head. The tone is amplified as it passes through these spaces and resonates against the teeth, hard palate and bony structures of your head, which act as sounding boards. If your breath resonates too freely in your nose, your voice has a nasal twang; if it bypasses your nose entirely, you speak in the blocked denasal fashion of someone with a heavy cold.
The only way you can hear your voice as other people hear it is by listening to a good stereophonic recording of it. It will sound higher and flatter than the one you normally hear which doubles back through the bony chambers in your head to your ears, gaining depth and resonance. Miss McGeachy says, “I've never yet played a tape recording to a person who wasn't very shocked to hear his own voice.”
Since no two people are physically identical, no two voices are ever exactly alike. Each baby in a maternity ward has his own distinctive voice, and within a few months he learns to babble jargon
in imitation of sounds he hears around him, including the ones he makes himself. Long before he knows words he develops conversational rhythms and gestures. True speech usually appears between twelve and eighteen months.
Since we learn mainly by imitation, children without human models never learn to talk. Anthropologists have encountered several such people, including Lucas, the baboon boy of Africa, Kamala. the wolf girl of India, and Tamasha, an eight-year-old boy found in a Central American jungle. Domestic pets, on the other hand, tend to develop a range of sounds much less monotonous than the howling and barking of wild animals. Dr. William H. Perkins, of the University of Southern California, once recorded the voice of a talking dog and played it to hundreds of speech students, none of whom suspected that the voice wasn't human. The dog was a Boston bull, the cherished pet of a woman who lived alone and talked constantly to him while she fed him and played with him. Because human sounds meant pleasure, he learned to imitate them although he had no idea of symbols and could only reproduce tones. In the same way, budgies and mynahs learn to speak when they focus affection on their human teacher.
As children grow, their vocal cords grow longer and their voices deepen. The voice organs share the spurt of growth that comes at puberty: a boy’s larynx grows much larger and his vocal cords increase by about a third of their original length, while a girl's larynx grows longer and her vocal cords grow slightly longer and much thicker. These changes occur so suddenly that the muscles that control the voice usually take a few months to catch up, and during this period most boys and some girls find their voices quavering unpredictably. Some children are so embarrassed by these breaks that they speak in a guarded monotone and never develop their full range. Others continue to have high-pitched voices that break in moments of excitement all their lives. “These are typically tall thin people who suddenly grew several inches at the beginning of their teens,” says Dr. Godfrey of the University of Toronto.
James Hickling, of Canadian Personnel Consultants, says, “Voice is one of the things that teenagers are uneasy about. The teenage world intensifies the situation of the adult world and physical things are much more stressed. Teenagers usually have something they feel inferior about, and often it’s the way they talk.”
In Canada, an estimated three hundred thousand people suffer from speech disorders serious enough to warrant treatment. The proportion of men is higher than women, especially among stutterers, partly because men deviate farther from the norm than women in all characteristics, and partly because most parents expect boys to talk as quickly and as well as girls who actually mature more rapidly.
Psychological difficulties and bad habits picked up through imitation account for seventy-five percent of all serious speech disorders and for practically all the unpleasant qualities that mar otherwise normal voices. About one speech disorder in four has an organic cause such as brain damage, deafness, cleft palate or some condition of the larynx.
“Even these organic problems carry with them psychological problems because people treat you differently if your vo:ce is strange, and you react accordingly,” Miss McGeachy says. "Now we begin speech therapy within twenty-four hours after a stroke or an accident, before the psychological reactions start.”
"The frustration and anxiety that result from a speech defect often build an additional emotional handicap which doubles the speech defective's burden," says Dr. Charles Van Piper, director of the speech clinic at Western Michigan College of Education.
The most mysterious of all speech impediments is stuttering. Some specialists think that certain people are stutteringprone, predisposed to react to stress by stuttering as others react by developing asthma, migraine or high blood pressure. Others, led by Dr. Wendell Johnson who has studied stuttering at the University of Iowa for twenty-five years, believe that children begin to “stutter” only when parents criticize them for hesitations and repetitions that are quite natural about the age of three.
Other psychologists suspect that the stutterer is handicapped by efforts to repress drives such as sex and hostility. Professor L. E. Travis, of the University of Seuthem California, reporting the unfe:tered fantasies revealed under therapy by a group of stutterers, said, “Two colleagues doubted that human beings could possess, let alone express, such thoughts and feelings." He concludes, "Stuttering may be defined as an advertisement of strong, unconscious motives of which the stutterer is deeply ashamed.”
Some people guard unwelcome thoughts in a less drastic way by speaking so softly that they can scarcely be heard. According to psychologists, a person whose speech is an inaudible murmur or a gabbled, inarticulate Hood may not want to be understood because he's afraid of being contradicted if he makes positive statements.
Under great emotional stress your voice may vanish altogether. Even when its disappearance seems the natural result of laryngitis or strain, an underlying psychological problem is often its true source. A secretary in her forties came to a Toronto hospital because her voice faded to a whisper whenever she was overtired. Her doctor found that this loss was caused not by any organic condition but simply by her unhappiness. She was the oldest woman in her office, unmarried and bored with a job too small to absorb her energy. The doctor asked her to lend a hand to his other patients and as she held cards and fetched equipment she forgot her own problems and gradually regained her voice.
A loud, strident voice may indicate any number of things about the speaker. Such a person may be as arrogant and aggressive as he sounds, or he may be trying to get his share of attention like a neglected child. Or he may shout because he is deaf, because he lives or works with deaf people or because he must habitually pit his voice against the roar of crowds, traffic or machinery.
Anxiety affects your voice instantly and unmistakably. "You can always spot a nervous guest on Tabloid because he runs out of breath,” Max Ferguson, of the CBC, says.
A high-strung person tends to speak quickly. According to Dr. Myron Schaeffer, of the music faculty at the University of Toronto, "The natural tempo with which one speaks is a tremendous index to character. There are two types of person who speak fast. One is the choleric, aggressive type, with a staccato voice. The
other is the sanguine type, with a light, rather high voice. Sanguine people are simple, outspoken, extroverted, flexible; they almost always agree with what you say. A slow-speaking person may be phlegmatic or melancholic. The phlegmatic type is a passive, subdued, introverted person with a soft, mellow, rather indistinct voice. The melancholic speaks in a deep voice with a falling inflection, and stubbornly repeats his own phrases and viewpoint. These types appear as national characteristics. Germans are cholerics, angry energetic people who
have to be out in front. Latins are sanguine, always excited about a new car, a new love affair, a new cup of coffee. The British people are phlegmatic muddlethrough traditionalists. The Slavic people are melancholy folk with deep soulful voices and slow music.”
However, we all use different voices in different situations, under different stresses. We answer the telephone with a remote. guarded greeting and return to our natural voice when we recognize the caller.
Your voice can win or lose jobs for
you. James Hickling says many ambitious men try to develop an “executive voice.” He explains that “an executive sounds confident and determined because he is sure he'll become a leader, and he becomes a leader partly because he has this kind of voice. An indecisive voice is a real liability.”
An unsuitable voice can bar you entirely from some professions. When the talkies came in. several silent-film stars like John Gilbert were dropped by their studios because their squeaky voices didn't suit their dashing appearance. Eva Lang-
bord says, “The voice is the most important component of an actor’s technical equipment. Even in a visual medium like television you notice a wrong voice in a second." Radio announcers are expected to be Huent and impersonal, and the CBC is rumored to have discouraged one who used to read the farm market reports in a suggestive voice that lent a moral significance to the phrase "good heifers" and made "undressed chickens” sound curiously indecent.
Voice training is compulsory for teachers in the lower grades in certain U. S. states such as New York because a teacher
with an unpleasant voice can't hold attention if she teaches the same class all day. Librarians use subdued tones, and doctors and nurses find a reassuring voice an asset.
Although railway announcers are traditionally a raucous breed, a girl who called the trains at Woking, Surrey, in World War II was famous for her melodious voice, which so beguiled a Canadian lieutenant that he tracked her down and married her.
Though not everyone is so susceptible to sound, we are all forever enmeshed in a web of voices that attract us, repel
us, influence us in various ways. Why do some voices please while others annoy us? Perhaps because they faintly echo people we have loved or disliked, experiences that we want to remember or forget.
Perhaps, too. our reactions spring from a deeper source. Dr. Schaeffer, of the University of Toronto, suggests, "Voices reveal a good deal about the listener as well as the speaker. You dislike voices that reveal traits to which you yourself are predisposed. If you're irritated by a whiny voice you could very easily develop one yourself.” ★