Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

If you are young(er) you likely know precisely what vocal fry means and if you are old(er)—probably not so much. It is a cultural phenomenon seen primarily (but not only) in young(er) women as described at the Mental Floss website:

“Vocal fry describes a specific sound quality caused by the movement of the vocal folds. In regular speaking mode, the vocal folds rapidly vibrate between a more open and more closed position as the air passes through. In vocal fry, the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives it a characteristic sizzling or frying sound.”

While it is nice to have a specific definition, it is also nice to hear examples of ‘what’ vocal fry actually sounds like so you can know it when you hear it. Vocal fry is the subject of intense scrutiny by bloggers covering linguistic changes, is seen as yet another entry in the endless complaints on women who have the temerity to speak in public, and as something that bugs older, white men in particular. Vocal fry has been likened to what used to be called “valley girl speak”, is used by almost 2/3 of college students, and is a characteristic which spreads as described in the video below.

You can hear a few more examples of vocal fry and what to do about it here, here, and here. Singers use vocal fry (sometimes artificially lowering their voices to enhance the ‘fry’) and researchers are looking into how vocal fry enhances emotionality in songs. Some say the denigration of vocal fry in women is just one more way in which women are criticized and maybe that is just how their voice sounds. (It is a parallel argument to what we saw in our recent post on resting bitch face [RBF]).

Yet, vocal fry annoyed one man so much he took his significant other to a speech therapist to cure her of her annoying style of speaking (and naturally wrote an article about the experience to make her even more self-conscious than did the speech therapist). Others justify their criticism of vocal fry use by saying it will hurt your chances of getting a job (but only if you are a woman—not if you are a man) and this one is apparently backed up by actual research!

“Young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable. The negative perceptions of women who use vocal fry are stronger when the listener is also a woman. Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman.”

While the use of vocal fry is often attributed to women only, men apparently do a lot of vocal fry(ing) also and you can listen to this audio link of famous males using vocal fry as they speak. Apparently, radio shows, podcasts, and even television shows get multiple complaints from viewers about the annoying female vocal fry but they receive few if any complaints when male reporters use vocal fry. Hmmmm.

Here’s a thought from a 2013 Slate article (which also echoes the idea that older men in positions of authority find vocal fry particularly annoying):

As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard. Our speech may not yet be considered professional, but it’s on its way there.

Once, an anxious parent wrote into Liberman’s blog to complain that a Ph.D. daughter populates her speech with uptalks (i.e., raising vocal inflection at the end of sentences), as do her doctor/lawyer peers. Could Liberman point to any research proving the “negative effects” of this feminine affectation?

“You’re certainly entitled to your crotchets and irks, just as your adult daughter is entitled to her prosodic preferences,” Liberman responded. “But in order for the two of you to get along, something’s going to have to give. And realistically, it’s you.”

In other words, listeners may want to get over it. But what does that mean from a litigation perspective? One of the key concerns for any public speaker (including lawyers, witnesses, and everyone else), is credibility. Styles of speech can appear sincere, frivolous, knowledgeable, or phony. As one who finds this style of speech an affectation, it reflects something about the values, priorities, and preferences of the speaker.

The speaker is working on making an impression, rather than coming across as authentic and persuasive. If a person wants to appear genuine and authoritative, examining the factors (including speech and accent) that guide impressions is worthwhile. This is one of those cases where you may want to consider pretrial research and getting mock juror reactions to a witness’ speech patterns. If they find the witnesses style of speaking “annoying”—it may be worth doing some preparation to modify speech patterns for testifying. The witness would still say the same things—they might just say them a bit differently.

It reminds me of a mock trial we did in East Texas where the attorney was concerned about how an actual jury would react to the speech of a man with vocal fry as an artifact of a chronic disease. We decided to test the younger male witness and did so by simply questioning him about his illness and how his voice related to that illness. Upon hearing that explanation, jurors embraced his testimony warmly.

But for witnesses with vocal fry unrelated to any medical condition, you cannot say, “I am younger, and people my age and most of my friends talk this way” and expect to be embraced. Instead, you may have to work on your speaking voice and intonation to see if it can be modified for courtroom testimony. While it will likely be irritating to the individual witness (particularly if they understand that men are not described as annoying when they use vocal fry)—it is likely to be more irritating to be dismissed by your audience in the courtroom as lacking in credibility.

Anderson RC, Klofstad CA, Mayew WJ, & Venkatachalam M (2014). Vocal fry may undermine the success of young women in the labor market. PLoS ONE, 9 (5) PMID: 24870387.

You can also find the full-text here: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097506

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