A style of speech known as “vocal fry” — low in pitch and sort of creaky sounding, and popularized by celebrities like the Kardashians — is increasingly common among young American women.
Although previous research has suggested that this way of speaking is associated with education and upward mobility, a study conducted by a University of Miami researcher and others indicates that vocal fry is actually perceived negatively, particularly in a labor market context.
Less attractive, less competent, less educated – and less hirable.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE in May 2014, the study suggests that women who speak in vocal fry are perceived as less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy — and ultimately less hirable.
UM’s Casey A Klofstad, associate professor of political science and the corresponding author of the study, said these findings suggest that perceptions of speakers based on their voices can influence hiring preferences for female job candidates.
“Our results show that the vocal fry fad is a hindrance to young women who are trying to find work,” he said. “Lack of experience due to their younger age, a historically poor economic environment, and sex discrimination are all barriers to labor market success for this demographic. Given this context, our findings suggest that young women would be best advised to avoid using vocal fry when trying to secure employment.”
For the study, the researchers recorded seven young adult females ages 19-27, and seven young adult males ages 20-30, speaking the phrase “thank you for considering me for this opportunity” in both their normal tone of voice and in vocal fry.
The recordings were then listened to by 800 study participants (400 women and 400 men).
After listening to each pair of voices, participants were asked to choose whether the person speaking in vocal fry or normal voice was the more educated, competent, trustworthy, and attractive of the pair. The study participants were also asked which person they would hire.
Participants selected the speakers of the normal voices more than 80% of the time for all five judgments. The results also show that while perceptions of education, competence, trustworthiness, and attractiveness each affected willingness to hire, perceptions of trust had the greatest influence. That is, the study suggests that job candidates who use vocal fry are not preferred particularly because they are perceived as untrustworthy.
When average is most attractive
“Humans prefer vocal characteristics that are typical of population norms,” Klofstad said. “While strange-sounding voices might be more memorable because they are novel, humans find ‘average’ sounding voices to be more attractive. It is possible that speakers of vocal fry are generally perceived less favorably because vocal fry is accompanied by a dramatic reduction in voice pitch relative to normal speech.”
Interestingly, the study also shows that while vocal fry is perceived negatively in both male and female speakers, women who use the affectation are perceived more negatively than men who use it. One explanation is that because women have higher voices than men on average, the lowering of voice pitch via vocal fry results in a sex-atypical voice pitch modulation for women.
“Previous studies show that when women try to lower the pitch of their voice they are perceived as less attractive,” Klofstad said. “You could view the results we found as an extension of this to an economic context, whereby deliberate lowering of voice pitch in a sex-atypical manner by women through vocal fry results in negative perceptions by potential employers.”