What our voice says about us
Our spoken voice is like a calling card. Beyond words and language, it says a lot about who we are: our past experiences, our current state, and our desires.
In his Laboratoire de la Voix (Voice Laboratory) in Paris, phonetician Elizabeth Fresnel deals on a daily basis with a variety of issues: loss of the voice, vocal fatigue... Though many of her patients are vocal professionals (comedians, singers, presenters...), others deal with personal and more singular issues. "There are people who come to see me because they don't like the sound of their voice", explains the phonetician. "This is a fairly recent phenomenon".
Not liking one's own voice is often explained by a false perception, a poor judgement of the timbre and pitch of our voice. However, such a personal dislike can be debilitating, since our spoken voice is such an integral part of our identity: it is with this that we present ourselves, formulate our thoughts, argue our ideas, and even seduce...
"The voice is very revealing", explains Dr Fresnel... And not just through our words! Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of everything that our voice reveals about our personality.
Hear that? It's your voice...
With but a simple "hello" spoken over the phone, we can generally determine the sex of the person with whom we are speaking. Is it a man or a woman? The answer is often immediate and obvious, since the voices of men and women are easily distinguished in terms of acoustic range. The average fundamental frequency of a woman's voice is higher than that of a man's.
However, every rule has its exception, and in China there exists a dialect known as wu, in which male and female voices both operate at similar frequencies. This may therefore indicate that the gendered voice is also the result of education and socio-cultural factors.
Another fact: our voice changes according to our age, and we can immediately distinguish the voice of a child and that of an adult, even though "a voice will age slowly, if it is well cared for", explains Dr Fresnel. "The human voice can last for a very long time, as opposed to other parts of the human body." Good news, and unsurprisingly one that has led many great thinkers in the past to associate the voice with the soul, thus explaining Aristotle's famous dictum:
"The sounds of voice are symbols of affections that take place in the soul".
Elizabeth Fresnel also notes that "the voice conveys an entire socio-cultural aspect, a level of education, and even origin through accents". This is due to the fact that we often construct our personalities and variable physical traits through mimesis and imitation, thus willingly adopting various vocal characteristics of our social circle. Pronunciation, speech melody, phrasing, and rhythm are all the result mimesis, as well as the nasal timbre (if this is unaffected by a physiological characteristic).
We therefore possess a certain power over various aspects of our own voice, capable of effect and change. This ability to shape and change one's voice is an important part of a comedian's profession, for example. For the needs of a particular film, a comedian may need to get rid of (or appropriate) a certain accent or style of speech.
Those many of us are not budding actors or comedians, we nonetheless change and adapt our voices according to those that surround us on a daily basis. The most frequent example of vocal mimesis is dating: when we hope to seduce, we align our vocal tone with the person in question, matching their pitch and vocal intensity. "A seductive voice is a beguiling one, much like a storyteller by a warm fire: the pace is slow, the vowels are elongated, the pauses accentuated; the voice is deeper with greater and slower melodic variations", explains Yves Ormezzano in his book Le Guide de la Voix (A Guide to the Voice), whilst nonetheless adding that "nothing is systematic!"
There are some things that are better left unsaid...
"The voice reveals constantly to others every intimate aspect, emotional and sexual, of our personality", writes Dr Yves Ormezzano. Undeniably, unless one possesses great training as a professional speaker (comedian, singer, radio presenter...), our voice often betrays our thoughts and sentiments through fluctuating intonations and "the variations of the tonal pitch of the voice", explains Dr Fresnel.
With a simple "Hello", we can easily guess the mood of the person with whom we are speaking. The voice exists independently of language, through the use of onomatopoeias, cries, but also the very tone we give to each word.
"A sentence is always coloured by the way the voice modulates and pronounces words: it can be either an interrogatory or affirmative declaration, a simple stated remark or a sentence filled with irony", writes Yves Ormezzano. "The underlying sentiments modify the impact of our words, consciously or not". Thus, stress and anger are often expressed using a higher-pitched and more panicked voice, whereas melancholy, sadness, and boredom are instead expressed using a deeper and lower-pitched voice, with a slower rhythm.
These intentions and implicit dialogues are what set us apart from voices generated using artificial intelligence. "A synthetic voice has no intention. It is neutral, whatever the context", explains the voice specialist and speech-language pathologist Joana Revis during her TEDx conference Votre voix, c’est vous, before asking her assistant Siri to repeat the same sentence with different emotional intentions, an impossible task for a computer program.
When Stanley Kubrick directed 2001 A Space Odyssey in 1965, synthetic voices had not yet been invented, and he therefore decided to cast the voice of actor Douglas Rain for the computer HAL 9000. If the scenes of confrontation between the astronaut David Bowman and HAL are still just as chilling, it is undoubtedly due to the fact that the latter possesses a human voice, giving HAL's electronic character an almost human aspect, the possibility of free thought, and even emancipation.
Through our voice also resonate our past experiences: "For example, anxiety can be clearly heard in a person's voice", notes Dr Elizabeth Fresnel. "A depressive state can also identified through the voice. Everyday, in my laboratory, I perform acoustic analyses, evaluating a person's capacities for intonation with a standard text. Someone using their voice correctly, without professional training, can cover up to 60% of possible intonations. A depressed individual, on the other hand, will communicate with a more monotone voice, with less intonation, using barely 20% of the possible range. This is indicative of someone no longer willing to play with their voice and vocal range."
However, not all vocal problems should be a source of worry, and in most cases any problems are primarily indicative of a "purely dysfunctional" issue, according to Dr Fresnel. "Most vocal problems are the result of issues with breath control or posture, two important pillars upon which the voice is built."
"The more intonation in a voice, the greater it becomes a criteria of aesthetics and communication", explains Elizabeth Fresnel. "_However, there is no "good" or "bad" voice. Those voices that touch and move us often belong to those that are dear to us. These familiar voices, the voices that we remember, are the voices that have forever inspired poets and artists._"
"How sweet it is to let oneself be persuaded by the voice that one loves" Alexandre Dumas fils, La dame aux camélias (1852).