Human vocal chords can produce an astonishing array of sounds: shrill and fearful, low and sultry, light and breathy, loud and firm. The slabs of muscle in our throat make the commanding sound of a powerful bass and a baby’s delightful, gurgling laugh. There are voices that must be taken seriously, voices that play and voices that seduce.
And then there’s vocal fry.
Bringing to mind celebrity voices like Kim Kardashian or Zooey Deschanel, vocal fry is a result of pushing the end of words and sentences into the lowest vocal register. When forcing the voice low, the vocal folds in the throat vibrate irregularly, allowing air to slip through. The result is a low, sizzling rattle underneath the tone. Recent studies have documented growing popularity of vocal fry among young women in the United States. But popular sizzle in women’s speech might be frying their job prospects, a new study reports. The findings suggest that people with this vocal affectation might want to hold the fry on the job market — and that people on the hiring side of the table might want to examine their biases.
Vocal fry has been recognized since the 1970s, but now it’s thought of as a fad. Study coauthor Casey Klofstad, a political scientist at the University of Miami in Goral Gables, Fla., says that the media attention surrounding vocal fry generated a lot of speculation. “It is a good thing? Is it bad? It gave us a clear question we could test,” he says. Specifically, they wanted to study whether vocal fry had positive or negative effects on how people who used the technique were perceived.
Led by Rindy Anderson from Duke University, the researchers recorded seven young men and seven young women speaking the phrase “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity.” Each person spoke the phrase twice, once with vocal fry and once without. Then the authors played the recordings to 800 participants ages 18 to 65, asking them to make judgments about the candidates based on voice alone.
Vocal fry does not make for an attractive candidate, the authors report May 28 in PLOS ONE. In more than 80 percent of tests, participants ranked the normal voice as more attractive, competent, hirable and trustworthy. While both men and women suffered for use of vocal fry, women suffered more.
The authors suggest that women should probably avoid using a raspy voice when at a job interview. “Young people may have to learn to ‘code switch,’ or jump between two different styles of speaking, if they want to impress both their friends and potential employers,” says Robert Burriss, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.
But the study authors also note that the bias runs both ways. “It’s a cautionary tale for people in positions of authority,” Klofstad says. “People in business need to think about their latent biases,” and think carefully about whether their judgments are getting tripped up by a harsh vocal register.
What makes this vocal affectation so terribly unappealing to potential bosses? Klofstad says there are several potential hypotheses. “We like typical things,” he says. “We tend to prefer voices that are close to a median in pitch because it’s the most common.” He says that when women in particular pitch their voices extremely low, they are showing “sex atypical” behavior, which is perceived as less attractive. But, Burriss notes, “it’s important not to overstate the sex differences. As the authors point out, vocal fry is strongly derided no matter the sex of the speaker or listener.”
But there could be other explanations. For example, until recently vocal fry was associated with throat disorders, injury or illness. The gravelly sound does make you wonder if someone is still getting over strep throat. Maybe people don’t like a voice that sounds sick. Patricia Eckert, a linguist at Stanford University also notes that the men and women using vocal fry in the study were clearly not used to doing so. The strangeness of the speech could be far more off-putting than the fry itself. “What people were reacting to was not more creak (there was plenty of creak in the control stimuli) but more strange-sounding speech,” she says.
The sex bias in the study also raises more questions. Women had a small, but significantly worse outcome with vocal fry than men. It could be because of the hypothesized “sex atypical” behavior. But it could also be because women tend to face harsher judgments than men in many domains, such as weight and displays of authority. “It’s a setup,” Eckert explains. “Women and girls are in general more innovative linguistically than men and boys. In fact, they are expected to show a certain amount of stylistic flamboyance, while men and boys are expected to be linguistically restrained. And of course this norm conflicts with norms for behavior in the halls of power.”
Previous studies have looked at vocal fry only in women, and the media coverage of it has followed suit. But men use vocal fry as well: Ira Glass of “This American Life” is one such offender. “Vocal fry has been pinned on young women,” Klofstad says. “But whether that’s deserved or not, I don’t know.” He notes that more systematic studies would be needed to look at vocal fry in young men.
Finally, it’s important to remember that while vocal fry may indeed be grating, most job candidates aren’t interviewed with a single sentence spoken over the phone. Most voices come with a face, a resume and a well-written cover letter. A little bit of razz on the end of words might be annoying, but in the end, it doesn’t reflect how well a candidate will get the job done.