Speak Softly? Maybe Not…

In the book, The Power to Communicate: Gender Differences as Barriers,[ref]Borisoff, D., & Merrill, L. (1998). The power to communicate: Gender differences as barriers. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press[/ref] authors Borisoff and Merrill make the point that many of the differences in men and women’s communication stems not from some innate physiological difference, but from differences in relative power between the sexes.

I agree with this, and I think most women would also agree. Borrisoff and Merril make the observation that although women’s vocals are pitched higher naturally, due to things like body size and weight, that alone does not explain why women use different pitches while speaking. Social conditioning demands that women modulate their voices to sound “smaller,” while men modulate their voices to sound “bigger.” I have noticed this many times: men drop their voices and use a more bass sounding tone in order to project authority and power, while women use a voice designed to project a more feminine, girlish impression. Most women, I believe, do this simply because it seems more accepted: if they try to come across deeper and project more authority with a deeper tone, it comes off poorly, or sounds unnatural.

There is no doubt that voice plays a big part in how one is perceived. I had a male co-worker named “Rob” who unfortunately had a very high pitched voice. His voice sounded “girly,” and it embarrassed him. There was nothing he could do about it, so he did the best he could. After a while people adjusted to it, but initially it was a shock to hear his voice. It just didn’t match. And that’s the problem I think women face. Women want to be considered feminine; and wear make-up, wear certain clothes, and adopt physical mannerisms, including adjusting their voices, to reflect that. If they change any of that to try to appear more bold, aggressive, powerful, or authoritative, it doesn’t “match” their femininity.

If the relative power between the sexes were equal, this probably wouldn’t be an issue. Women and men would be accepted equally, despite the differences in how they presented themselves and spoke. However, men are obviously perceived as being more powerful and it is their physical traits that define power. Men enhance and play upon their physical traits to increase their power stature and it fits them. If they don’t, or if they have an unfortunate trait like Rob’s high voice, it works against them. If women try to adopt any of the men’s power symbols it works against them.

It seems to me that women have a fine line to walk. On one hand, if they want to be considered powerful and forceful in a man’s environment, they have to give up some of their femininity. They have to work at projecting a stronger image with tricks by using a deeper, more modulated voice, and by speaking more slowly. On the other hand, if they overdo it by adopting too many male power traits, they can look awful. For example, a man might get away with yelling. He can pound his desk and raise his voice and it will be perceived as forceful and powerful. Workers might even praise him with comments like “he really lowered the boom,” or “man, he really chewed my ass.” But if a woman tried that, the perception is likely she came across as shrill, hysterical, or “emotional.”

Women, I think, have to be aware of the image they project with their voices. It can’t be too “girlish,” nor can it be too rough. Either way, in terms of being taken seriously, they will be penalized. Women have to be prepared to give up some of the naturally feminine aspects of speaking, and understand the impact of their voice.


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