Vocal Fry and Uptalk

Vocal Fry and Uptalk – What size is your medium?

There has been a lot of criticism about the use of uptalk and vocal fry. But is it fair?

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, creaking sound. In speech pathology, it had historically been considered a damaging vocal pattern, but 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 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 the 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?

Hillary Clinton’s Voice

Here’s what voice science is telling us:

1. Men are more attracted to women with higher voices.

2.We are more likely to vote for women with deeper voices.

So if sex sells, can we surmise that Hillary Clinton lost out on a few votes?  We can at least say that she was unfairly criticized because of her voice.  She was called shrill.  Screechy.  Nagging.

And when Brit Hume from Fox News said that Hillary “has a not-so-attractive voice“, we of course see that as a criticism.  But in fact I suppose he’s right.   That’s why she got elected in the first place.  If it were an attractive voice according to the studies, then it would likely be higher pitched.  High-pitched voices don’t get elected. Seems unfair, but welcome to womanhood.  Lo and behold, you can’t have it all.  When it comes to your voice, you can either be electable, or attractive.  But apparently not both.

So, when I hear Hillary Clinton at 21 years old with a whole lot of head voice (that men find attractive), I think yeah, sure, it’s nice enough to listen to, but I probably wouldn’t vote for her.  And something told Hillary the same thing.  So she changed.  She decided to become electable, consciously or not.  That’s how the voice works. We make changes as we go, usually subconsciously.  Sometimes those changes work out for the best.  Sometimes we regret them.  (Which is where I suspect vocal fry will end up in about 10 years, but I digress.)

And society changed.  In these modern times, North American society doesn’t have a lot of respect for women who speak exclusively in head voice.  Think of Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl.

They all thought she was sexy, but no one was going to promote her.

Here’s Hillary still in head voice in 1983

So she adapts.

Hello society, you only respect deeper voices?  All right then!  Here’s my chest voice.  I’ll use it as much as I possibly can.  Hey!  I got elected!  Well that worked out great!

Except for when they say she sounds like she’s lecturing or combative.  “You should sound softer!  Kinder!  Gentler!”

Also, Hillary got older.  That tends to happen with humans. (Crazy!)  Both aging and using chest voice lower women’s voices.  This article does a great job of explaining the science behind Hillary’s changing and adapting voice.  Kudos to the author for tracking down voice scientist Ingo Titze.  He really knows this stuff.  The good thing about lowering your voice is that it gets you elected.  But the problem is, and Ingo Titze wrote this to me in an email a few years back, the problem with women using primarily chest voice (WHICH GOT THEM ELECTED), is that  “Women will be at a disadvantage if they lower their speaking pitch to the male speaking range. The generally smaller female larynx drives less airflow, which means females will likely “press” more to increase their vocal power. This comes at a cost.”

What is the cost?  Ingo, what is the cost?!

Well, it’s that when they try to get louder, when they want to increase their vocal power, women who use chest voice tend to press their voice.  And that can make her sound Annoying! (Thank you Sonny Bunch.) Or Screechy! (Thank you Joel Achenbach.) Or like she has a Very Average Scream! (Thank you Donald Trump).  Oh hey,  speaking of the Donald, guess who else presses his voice?

Standing in front of a crowd of thousands, it’s pretty hard not to want to increase your vocal power.  Sure, there’s a microphone, but it’s thousands of people! When Hillary or Donald are in front of a crowd, they press their voices.  But very different things come up when you google Hillary Clinton Voice and Donald Trump Voice.  (That is the “sexist double standard” part of all this.)  And after years of pressing a voice, it can become more and more hoarse.  Indeed, there is a cost.

I’d like to suggest that criticizing Hillary Clinton for using her chest voice is like criticizing a giraffe for having a long neck.

Giraffe!  Sure, you can now eat leaves from the tops of trees, but come on!  It’s SO HARD for you to bend down and drink water.  The lions might get you! What were you thinking?!

And the giraffe’s all like, “Dude, I was thinking about NOT DYING OF HUNGER.”  My long neck is what helps me survive!  I didn’t really consider the water-drinking, but I guess I’ll just have to take my chances.

Yeah, but you might get eaten by LIONS!

Yeah, but I wouldn’t even BE HERE if not for my long neck.

The giraffe adapted.

The lions can only take you down if you actually exist.  But first you gotta survive.

Bottom line, maybe we need to stop criticizing the giraffe for having such a long neck.  It’s what got her this far.

Do you press your voice?  Ingo Titze has something that can help:

The Accent Bias.

I recognize that taking cultural sensitivity advice from Little Britain is a very bad idea. Still, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from Weight Watchers Counsellor Marjorie Dawes. Not surprisingly, it has very little to do with fashion.

Humanaccents.com discusses what these Little Britain sketches are illustrating. “Studies have shown the perception of the accent, not the accent by itself, often results in negative evaluations of non-native teachers. In one clever study (Rubin, 1992), students listened to a taped lecture recorded by a native English speaker with a standard accent and were shown a picture of the lecturer. However, half of the students were shown a picture of a Caucasian instructor and the other half saw a picture of an Asian instructor. Students who saw the Asian picture believed that they had heard an accented lecturer and performed worse on a task measuring lecture comprehension. Thus, negative evaluations may reflect the prejudices that one holds rather than real issues with comprehensibility.”

In a nutshell, students listened to an instructor, and if they thought he was Asian, they had a hard time understanding him. Even though he was actually a white guy speaking without an accent. (More precisely a Standard American Accent.) If they thought he was Caucasian, no problem. Wow our brains are stupid sometimes.

So, if you have an ‘accent’ compared to most people around you, the next time you find yourself misunderstood you may not be at fault.

If you’re the listener and you’re having a hard time understanding someone, excuse yourself, run to the bathroom and take a quick look in the mirror. Really look at yourself. If you see any trace of Marjorie Dawes there, then I suggest you change your attitude.

And your eyeshadow.

Rubin, 1992.  Nonlanguage Factors Affecting Undergraduates’ Judgments of Nonnative English-SpeakingTeaching AssistantsAuthor(s): Donald L. RubinSource: Research in Higher Education, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Aug., 1992), pp. 511-531Published by: SpringerStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40196047 .

Chrystia Freeland and The Speaker

I just wasted seven minutes of my time googling “Chrystia Freeland & Bill Maher” to find out if her voice is always as high pitched as it was in Question Period yesterday.  If you haven’t heard, the newbie Liberal MP had a hard time of it.  This Huffington Post piece also notes a commentator’s ‘sexist’ tweet suggesting she use her ‘big girl voice’.  Nice.  Interesting to note that Conservative opponent Michelle Rempel tweeted to her defense.

But here’s the thing: women’s voices have never served them well in QP.   The Ottawa Journal in 1932 reads: “Miss Agnes Macphail…Gowned in black,…her voice unusually shrill in a chamber modelled for baritones and basses.”  Plus ça change…

Many women’s voices don’t serve them well on television panels, either.  On this Bill Maher panel from 2011, Freeland gets about 20 seconds worth of microphone time.  The other 7 minutes are taken up almost entirely by three of her fellow male panelists.  (She ties for talking time with the fourth guest, a doctor, but he got to end the segment with a high five to Bill Maher for being in his 70’s and not needing Cialis, so he’s all right. We don’t know what he has to say, but the guy can still get it up!  Important stuff.)  Freeland comes across as a VERY good listener.  At least that’s how it appears since they’re giving her an inordinate amount of camera time for somebody not speaking.  They show her doing a lot of very good cleavage listening. It is excellent listening, and if it takes excellent listening to get on Bill Maher, then so be it. Sometimes you gotta play by their rules.

Women are supposed to be good listeners.  Studies show it.  Less talk, more listening please.  In one study, two actresses spoke dialogue of exactly the same length of time, and listeners judged it that way–to be equal in length.  But when the roles were played by a man and a woman instead, the women were judged – by listeners of both genders – to be talking more. (1).

Isn’t that sad?  They spoke for the same amount of time, but everyone thought the woman was talking for a really looooooong time.  Why won’t she just shut up already?  In another study, there was a group discussion where almost twice as many men as women had spoken, but listeners judged that most of the speakers had been female. (2)  Sigh.   If I were a feminist like Dale Spender, the author of that study, I too might come to the pessimistic conclusion that “women seem excessively talkative not, as had been assumed, in comparison to men but rather as compared to silence.  In other words, if silence is the ideal for women, ‘then any talk in which a woman engages can be too much’. ” (3)

Chrystia Freeland describes her own voice as pretty high in her QP question. When people ask me what I mean by Voice Therapy in my practice, well, this is part of what I mean.  Everyone has a wide range of potential in their individual voices.  Often we limit it.   Always high-pitched, always low-pitched, not enough volume, not enough breath, etc.  In voice therapy we try to peel away the physical and psychological layers that limit this range.  Fun stuff.  But that’s not the point here. I’ve since found other examples of Chrystia Freeland’s voice that show she can deliver a message with a nice combination of head and chest voice.  When relaxed, she’s got a strong, balanced voice.

But Freeland had to YELL to be heard in Question Period yesterday.  This is often the case–especially for women whose speaking voices tend to be lower in volume than men’s.  Sure, there are things she could do differently to yell more efficiently.  But it doesn’t serve her well to yell.  It’s hard to sound calm and confident when you’re yelling.  Chrystia Freeland was voted in as a Member of Parliament by her constituents.  She gets her turn.  It’s not her turn to listen, it’s her turn to talk.

So Freeland asked for quiet. Well done, I say. She should have been provided it.

Everyone in the House should start demanding quiet — man or woman. It’s the Speaker’s job to provide order.

So quiet down, people. Wait your turn. And when your turn comes, demand that the Speaker do his job.



1. Cutler, A. & Scott, D.R. (1990). Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk, Applied Psycholinguistics, 11, 253-272.

2. Spender, D. 1979, February. Language and sex differences. Osnabrucker Beitrage zur Sprach-theorie. 38-59.

3. Karpf, A. 2006, The Human Voice, New York & London, Bloomsbury. 161-162.

You vs. Barack

How do you compare to The President?
The following text is the beginning of Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech.
Find yourself a timer (your computer or cell phone will have one), press start, and read. Read it as if you’re in front of the hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C.

“Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens, each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Now, press STOP.
It took Barack Obama seventy seconds to say that.
How long did it take you? (Send me a note, I’d love to know!)

But wait, people think he’s a good, even great speaker. (They even applauded. Did you hear applause when you finished? I didn’t think so.)

Giving your listeners time to process one thought is more important than trying to express two or three thoughts in the same amount of time. If you don’t pause to let them process your message, they’ll come away with nothing.
Nothing but a feeling that you just wasted their time.
So the next time you find yourself speaking in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring followers, be sure to pause. Long and often. But even if you only have a handful of listeners, my bet is that you could pause longer and more often. Your message, and its weight, will be better received if you do.

Listen to Obama here:
(The portion you read begins at 0:54)

“Unaccented English.” Compliment or Insult?

Yesterday Canada’s Minister for Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, deleted a tweet that had him praising a young Syrian refugee for his unaccented English.  Kenney got into some hot water for the comment.  But did he deserve it?  Clearly Mr. Kenney thought it was a compliment to acknowledge that this boy had learned English so perfectly so quickly (within a year of arriving in Canada, as reported).  It is impressive!  Just as I’m impressed that my anglophone kids come out of French Immersion Kindergarten in their Quebec school with what sounds to me like perfect unaccented French.  I mean it’s amazing!  I had to work on improving my French accent for years and they get it in one year?  WOW!

Except, that’s simply how our brains work.  There is evidence of a critical period in language development when we are able to learn a new language more easily, and if that’s done before puberty (or thereabouts, research suggests), well then we have a fighting chance at speaking that language without an accent.  Learning a new language after that critical period?  Fat chance.  Now, it is possible to sound less accented, to speak more clearly, to learn ways to make you easier to understand if you learn a language later in life.  Just ask my clients. But it takes focused work (see Accent Reduction).  A goal of “unaccented” speech is too lofty for most adults.  So for us, it does seem truly admirable that someone could sound unaccented within a year of learning the language.  Except that’s what kids do.

So should we be offended by Jason Kenney’s tweet?

Well, I plan on asking my clients this question for the rest of this week.

I suspect their responses will vary.  Clients come to me from different places (literally and figuratively).  They are not a homogeneous collection of accented speakers.

So I’ll wait and hear what they have to say.  In their beautifully accented English.



Not one of my clients was offended.  At all.

Granted, they are not a good control group.  These clients have come to me to work on their speech, their accents.  They recognize that sometimes their message isn’t getting to their listeners very easily, and they are open to changing their delivery.  Still, not an ounce of offence taken by that tweet.  Just disappointment that they had already gone through puberty, so it’s not as easy for them.

Well, the same could be said for just about every aspect of life.  It all gets a lot harder after puberty, doesn’t it?

One thing to keep in mind with such comments, though, is the context and the source.  If someone with a bias or prejudice against immigrants makes such a statement, then we may well be offended by their praising someone’s unaccented English.  But Jason Kenney was the Minister of Multiculturalism.  So I’m sure he only meant it as a compliment.   That’s what my clients think, and here they are the experts.


Irregardless of the teleprompter…

Okay vocabulary snobs, this one’s worth a listen. Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, will shine a light on the word “irregardless“. As informative as her explanation is, she also provides us with an excellent example of the spoken word. She has great range (nice highs and lows), and despite her first three phrases all having rising intonation, she recovers with confidence, exceptional timing and a perfect rate. After listening to it three times, it’s still hard to tell that she’s reading from a teleprompter. She is, and that ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done.

Change it up

During Question Period in the House of Commons, opposition MPs usually squeeze all they can into their 30 second slot.  On Nov. 5th, Thomas Mulcair did a little something different in his follow-up question for John Baird.  The rest of the House is used to hearing their colleagues drone on.  They often use a fast rate with no pauses and limited intonation to get it all in, and we have to work pretty hard to follow their message.  Mulcair’s unexpected  approach makes everyone take notice.

Changing it up attracts attention.  Sometimes, less is more.  So if you find yourself droning on like a politician in Question Period, pause, and use a short phrase to focus your message.  You’ll get your listeners back.

Ok, I’ll pause now, and say a short phrase.  Watch this: