What do we hear when we hear vocal fry?

Tennessee professor Michael Higdon has followed up his 2009 Kansas Law Review piece on nonverbal persuasion with a thoughtful new essay,   “Oral Advocacy and Vocal Fry: The Unseemly, Sexist Side of Nonverbal Persuasion.”

If you’re not familiar with vocal fry, check out this MSNBC video at minute 3:30 for an example drawn from law practice (“Um, I don’t really think that evidence is sufficient.”) The video briefly explores a few themes expanded upon in much greater depth in Professor Higdon’s piece: Is the problem with women using vocal patterns that diminish their appearance of competence? Or is the problem with managers and society scrutinizing and judging women harshly yet again? Higdon quotes Amanda Hess describing the joint perils of vocal fry and “upspeak”:

So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.

Higdon takes this debate into the realm of law and the individual choices women law students and lawyers must make. He also places vocal fry into a larger framework of nonverbal persuasion including body language such as gestures, the use of space, the relationship to the speaking environment as well as any props or other instruments, physical appearance, the use of time, and other factors. “Vocalics” or what the speaker sounds like is the factor raising these questions.

Higdon and many others eschew the easy answer that women should stop vocal fry simply because it hurts others’ perception of them.

What is a female attorney to do? Does she scrupulously monitor and adjust her professional nonverbal behavior to match those qualities that social science tells her tend to be perceived more positively? Or does she ignore this research and what it might mean within her own career and instead follow her own preferences on how to present herself? Clearly, this essay cannot definitively answer that question—it is instead a personal question that must be answered by each person individually.

He points out that not all critiques of nonverbal behaviors are complicated: for example, lawyers should avoid pointing at their audience, especially when that audience consists of judges sitting as a court of law. But preferences about some nonverbal behaviors such as women’s vocal inflections raise harder questions of underlying bias. Higdon’s discussion reminded me of the discussion—how can this discussion still be happening?—whether women make a mistake by going to court in pants suits rather than skirts.

[W]hat one gains in the short term by presenting herself as in line with societal expectations can create problems in the long term by making it that much easier for everyone to ignore the sexism motivating those preferences.

Some would say the women lawyer’s identity shouldn’t matter. If she’s going to court where a judge has previously expressed disdain for women in pants suits and if she takes seriously her role as an advocate for the client, then she should grin and wear it (the skirt, that is). Likewise if society is saying vocal fry makes a woman sound incompetent and if a woman lawyer wants to represent clients effectively in said society, then stop with the vocal fry. As Higdon acknowledges, failure to comply can be damaging.

But he urges a deeper analysis that makes room for identity even as it contemplates audience:

[T]he preferences people have for certain behaviors are almost always motivated by something other than the behavior itself. Typically there is a connection in the audience member’s mind between that discrete behavior and something else—and it is the “something else” that requires more inquiry.

I recommend this article, especially as a companion to Higdon’s foundational article on nonverbal persuasion, previously reviewed here on the blog.

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