Vocal Fry and Uptalk – What size is your medium?

On the Candy Palmater Show, I heard a magazine editor complain that she often received unsolicited criticism about her voice. If you listen to it, you’ll hear vocal fry and uptalk. (Gasp!) For some listeners, these are cardinal sins.

Uptalk is the tendency for speakers to go up in pitch? At the end of every phrase? Even though they’re not asking a question? Vocal fry or glottal fry is the sound that is created in the lowest register of the human voice. It’s a low, crackling sound. In speech pathology, it has historically been considered a damaging vocal pattern.  (Although that is up for debate. It can accompany a disorder, but not cause it.) Regardless of whether or not it damages the vocal folds, it can create a usage problem in that it takes a lot of effort to hold the arytenoid cartilages together tightly enough to make the sound. That’s a lot of tension for those throat muscles to maintain, and the cost of that tension is vocal fatigue.  By definition, vocal fry uses very little airflow. So there’s no projecting this voice. But it is low in pitch, I’ll give you that.

Also up for debate is whether or not people should be criticized for using it. Author and feminist Naomi Wolf told young women to stop it. Young women were incensed. They said REALLY?! We’re criticized for how we look, how we dress, how we behave, and now we’re being criticized for how we TALK? You should be listening to what we say, not how we say it. In fact, in a perfect world, I tend to agree. People really should listen to what others are saying, regardless of how they look or sound.

Only I don’t make the rules.

And the rule here is The Medium Is The Message.

Your voice is the medium, so what message is your listener receiving? Do they hear confidence? Calm? Insecurity? Anxiety? Studies suggest that different generations hear different things in a voice that uses vocal fry and uptalk.  But one thing is certain, if they are distracted by your voice, then the message they hear is likely very different than the one your words are trying to convey.

Did you ever live with a roommate and you got along great and everything was just fine until suddenly it wasn’t? When THAT THING your roommate did started to drive you crazy? Maybe it was that they never put away the dishes. Maybe it was the sound of their chewing. Or that they never cleaned the toilet. (Oh wait that was me.) Whatever it was, once you became consciously aware of it, and it had a name, that roommate was doomed. You could see nothing else. Everything they did was seen through the lens of this flaw. Such is the case with vocal fry and uptalk. Once people name the sin, the speaker is doomed. Vocal fry and uptalk haters can’t receive the message you’re sending. They can’t unhear it, and they can hear nothing else.

Your words may be inspirational, concise, and logical. But if your listener can’t hear them because they are focused on the way your voice creaks at the end of every sentence, or goes up in pitch, then your intended message is compromised. They will be so distracted by the delivery that they won’t be able to process your words.

You’re right, this is not fair. Your peers won’t mind the vocal fry or uptalk. They may be using it themselves. So if your friends are the ones hiring and promoting you, then there should be no problem. That’s not the case in most workplaces, though. The people hiring and promoting you really should be listening to what you say, not how you say it. But no one said life was fair. And people don’t always do what they should. The unfairness is compounded since more criticism for fry and uptalk is aimed at women for these perceived sins, even though young men are guilty too.

But if you want to stand up for your feminist rights, choose another hill to die on. This one’s not nearly high enough. Because really, taming your fry and uptalk isn’t such a horrible thing. You may think it defines you, but I think it defines you in the same way that beards define hipsters. Sure, everyone’s got one, it makes them fit in, and it looks cool. But in the end, many beards are honestly not very attractive. You know the ones I’m talking about. My guess is that in a few years, these guys will look back at old photos and feel glad they eventually shaved. (I know, because I’ve got photos from the 80’s. Not a pretty decade.)

[Here is a side note for the vocal fry and uptalk haters: stop judging. Why so angry? Do your very best to listen to their words. If you have a trusting relationship with the speaker, and you genuinely think their communication is holding them back professionally, offer them encouragement. Gently point out that some listeners can only hear the fry or uptalk (especially older listeners), and you believe their professional communication will be an uphill battle if they limit themselves with this delivery. But the uninvited criticism and the vitriol attached to this topic reek of indignant superiority and sexism, which is hurtful, not helpful. So be aware of your biases and tread carefully.]

If you are a chronic uptalker or vocal fryer, then to ensure being heard in your professional life, practice delivering your message using the full range of your voice that you were given. You have an incredible system of vocal cords and a resonating body that can express a vast variety of emotions and intentions.  Why limit it? Stay out of that creaky fry zone. As soon as you hear the crackle, try to raise your pitch a bit to get out of it. Be generous with your breath. End your sentences high when it’s required, but also end low when that’s called for. Variety and range make for great speaking voices.

If you want help figuring this out and changing those patterns, your friendly neighbourhood speech pathologist is a good place to start.

Your fry voice and uptalk do not define you. They are not all you’ve got. They are limiting not only in how you’re perceived, but also in how fully you are able to express yourself. Your voice is the medium, so why not make your medium an extra-large?