Is there such a thing as a "gay voice"? For gay filmmaker David Thorpe, the answer to that question is complicated. "There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice," Thorpe tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But, he adds, "there is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype."
In his new film, Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe searches for the origin of that stereotype and documents his own attempts to sound "less gay" by working with speech pathologist Susan Sankin.
"David was the first person who came to me who was upfront right from the beginning about sounding gay and what he wanted to do," Sankin tells Gross.
"I've always been self-conscious about sounding gay," Thorpe adds. "I think that that comes from childhood — I was always aware that my voice potentially gave me away to bullies."
Thorpe describes the gay voice as one characterized by a sibilant S and a high pitch. "When I interview people," Thorpe says, "they always say that to them the gay voice ... is a voice that's high, that's melodious, that's hyper-articulate, that's perhaps uncertain because it goes up at the end. All of those things kind of add up, essentially, to an effeminate stereotype."
On being self-conscious about sounding gay
Thorpe: I grew up in the '80s, which was a less accepting time for LGBT people. And as Dan Savage says in the movie, effeminate kids, whether they are gay or straight, get persecuted for, kind of, how they walk and how they talk. ... When I'm not confident in my life, for whatever reason, sometimes those feelings of shame and stigma resurface.
On where the "gay sound" comes from
Thorpe: If I have to speculate about where the so-called gay voice comes from, for me, both the most predominant answers work. One is that as you're acquiring language you tend to imitate the people you trust and you identify with, and certainly for me that was a lot of women. I always had a lot of female friends growing up and I don't think that's atypical for some gay men. At the same time, I totally get that when I came out, I wanted to be recognized as gay; I wanted the world to know I was gay and I wanted to fit into this existing community, so I think my voice really did change after I came out. I think that both the language-acquisition theory and the community-learned way of speaking hold water. It's kind of impossible to really tangle out a single reason.
On Sankin's goal as a speech pathologist
Sankin: When people come to see me they typically have reached the point where it's really bothering them and it's interfering with communication. ... Where I typically go with them is trying to give them that confidence. ... I always start my sessions by saying, "Tell me about your week. How was your voice? How was your speech this week?" And when clients come in and say, "You know, I feel so much better. I'm speaking more, I feel much more confident," that's what I'm trying to achieve.
On what Thorpe gained from working with a speech pathologist
Thorpe: For me, what I really gained from the voice coaching was actually how to position my larynx and how to speak more naturally. For me the long O's are a style and I kind of embrace that style. And in the film, in fact, I talk a little bit about where that comes from, which is there's a longstanding stereotype of this kind of aristocratic kind of pansy figure from Hollywood and film and I think I absorbed that growing up. But I embrace it now and I think it can be fun and funny and part of who I am. What I took from Susan was more an easy way of speaking and an ability to speak authentically rather than changing my style to sound less gay.
On Thorpe's gay friends also struggling to accept their voices
Thorpe: One of the revelations of making this film was that this is something that had always bothered me and every time, basically, I talk to a gay man I would find out that he also had either spent a lot of time thinking about his voice or used to be self-conscious about his voice or still felt self-conscious about his voice. And it was so shocking to me that none of us had ever spoken to each other about it. There's a dinner party scene in the film with my two best friends for the last 15 years, and I learn in that dinner party that one of them has really struggled to accept his voice. And I learn that the other one has [not only] struggled with his voice but just with being gay in general. And he says, "I just have a generalized self-loathing." And it was so shocking to me, this kind of casual confession of shame, because it really isn't something we had ever talked about.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Have you ever said about someone after first hearing him speak, he sounds gay? My guest, David Thorpe, has wondered if he sounds gay. He is gay, and out, and has no problem with being gay, but he does - or, at least, did - have a problem with his voice. He thought it sounded annoying and stereotypically gay. His way of dealing with the issue of his voice was to make a documentary called, "Do I Sound Gay?" The film, which he narrates, follows him as he seeks insights and advice from speech therapists and linguists and talks to gay friends about his voice and their voices. He also talks to several gay people who have very familiar voices, including David Sedaris, Tim Gunn, Dan Savage and George Takei. One of the voice experts he consults is also joining me, Susan Sankin. She's a language and speech pathologist whose clients include actors, public speakers and non-native speakers. A little later, I'll talk with her about vocal issues she more typically addresses with clients, like upspeak and vocal fry. Here's how David Thorpe's documentary begins.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DO I SOUND GAY?")
DAVID THORPE: Do I sound gay?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, I think you do sound gay. Not as much as I do, but...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, in Francais, no. In English, I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Not at all.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's your tone which is, like, intellectual, so people can read it as gay.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I would've just maybe lumped it in the artsy-fartsy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You sound creative.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: You have, like, the S in the front of the mouth, which is part of the gay man stereotype.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: There is something slightly melodic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I think it's the nasality.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I would definitely rate you as a metrosexual.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: No.
THORPE: Not at all?
WOMAN #7: No.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: You sound like a human being male.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: #8: (Speaking foreign language).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: It's perhaps the fact that I'm gay as well, so I can pick up on that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: And you don't sound, like, gay maybe because I'm steeped in gay.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: You could sound gay if you wanted to make it a very, very - cast a very wide net.
TIM GUNN: We enunciate (laughter). And if that's gay, (imitates kissing sound).
GROSS: (Laughter). That was Tim Gunn throwing the kiss (laughter), at the end of that opening collage from the movie, "Do I Sound Gay?"
David Thorpe, welcome to FRESH AIR. Susan Sankin, welcome to FRESH AIR.
David, you realize that as you talk, all of us listening to you will be evaluating, does he sound gay?
GROSS: I don't know, what does gay mean? What does gay sound mean? And that might distract us from what you're actually saying (laughter), so...
THORPE: I'm used to it, it's OK.
GROSS: So, why did you start thinking - or perhaps more accurately, worrying, about whether you sounded gay and what that meant?
THORPE: Well, I've always been self-conscious about sounding gay, and I think that that comes from childhood. You know, I grew up in the '80s, which was a less accepting time for LGBT people and, as Dan Savage says in the movie, you know, effeminate kids, whether they are gay or straight, get persecuted for kind of how they walk and how they talk. And, for me, I was always aware that my voice potentially kind of gave me away to bullies. So, you know, when I'm not confident in my life for whatever reason, sometimes kind of those feelings of shame and stigma resurface. And I was prompted to make the film after I broke up with someone I was very much in love with and feeling like a loser, for lack of a better word. You know, I was in my 40s and single and thought, like, why can't I still find love? And a lot of that, you know - a lot of that vulnerability and shame about sort of my worth as a person resurfaced. And on top of it, I started to find myself repelled by gay voices. I had a lightning bolt moment on a trip to Fire Island after the breakup, and I should've been excited to be going to this place where I could heal and swim and be with my gay tribe. But instead I found myself kind of repelled by these chattering gay voices around me, and it was a real lightning bolt because I felt like the world had turned upside down. I had fought so hard to come out of the closet. I'd been an AIDS activist off and on for 25 years. And here I was somehow, 25 years later, alienated from the very people that I wanted to be a part of, so I knew that I needed to get to the bottom of my feelings, whatever they were.
GROSS: So, I mean, not only did you - in the movie, you say you're not only, like, alienated from a certain type of gay voice that you were particularly surrounded by on the train going to Fire Island, but you describe those voices as sounding like braying ninnies. I mean, that's really insulting.
THORPE: (Laughter). Well, you know, I wanted to be really honest about how I felt, and many gay men have expressed to me, after seeing the film, that they know exactly that feeling and they themselves have that moment. And I think, you know, some of us sometimes are - can be aghast at how we sound because I think, in part, we don't know where our voices come from. For me, I felt like, you know, am I just acting out a stereotype? Am I imitating Paul Lynde and Liberace 'cause that's what I grew up with, or is this really my voice? So for me, it was a big question of authenticity and also, you know, we do live in a sexist culture, and we're taught that effeminacy is bad and so when you see a lot of gay men acting super effeminate, even gay men themselves can sometimes flinch.
GROSS: So what do you consider to be the gay sound? What do you think sounds gay about your voice?
THORPE: (Laughter). Well, I mean, the hallmark of the gay voice is certainly the sibilant S. Sorry, Terry Gross, but - you know, that kind of thing. I need a good - I need a better sentence to illustrate that, but I think everybody knows what I'm talking about. But in general when I interview people, they always say that to them the gay voice - the stereotype of the gay voice is a voice that's high, that's melodious, that's hyper-articulate, that's perhaps uncertain because it goes up at the end. All of those things kind of add up, essentially, to kind of an effeminate stereotype.
GROSS: Well, let's call in a speech language pathologist who you consult in the movie, Susan Sankin.
SUSAN SANKIN: Thank you.
GROSS: So from your perspective - well, let me back up a little bit. Was David the first person who came to you hoping you'd help him sound less gay?
SANKIN: No, not at all. The interesting thing, though, was that David was the first person who came to me who was up-front right from the beginning about sounding gay and what he wanted to do. Very typically, in the past, the clients that came would say to me, I think I need to improve my articulation, or I have an S problem. And after a few sessions when they - I guess when they felt that they could trust me - they would say, you know, by the way, I'm gay.
And so I've done this over the years, for many years, and I will say that there were more gay men that came to see me in the past than people who come now. You know, much the way David said, in the '80s it was a little bit tougher to be gay. I think now that, in general, especially in New York City, that people are more accepting.
GROSS: So Susan, from your perspective as a speech pathologist, what are the distinctive qualities of the, quote, "gay voice?"
SANKIN: I was listening to David as he was enumerating them very accurately...
SANKIN: ...And I was thinking, David, those were all the things that I would say.
SANKIN: But he did it really well. It's dentalizing the S. Some people say it's a lisp - it's not actually a lisp. A lisp is when you put your tongue between your teeth. Some young children have this - you know, (imitating lisp) Sally ate some soup. It's not that. It's the tongue moving forward and hitting the back of the upper teeth so that it becomes very hissy. (Imitating hiss) Sally said so.
It's a noisy S. And some of it is over-exaggeration. When David came, that was one of the things that we worked on, the over-exaggeration of the O sound - hanging onto vowels. It was variation in pitch, up and down. Over-articulate speech, being very, very precise. Hitting the final T sounds with more precision than usual. So I think we covered them both, right?
THORPE: I think we got it all.
GROSS: Let's go into the O sound more. What was the distinctive quality of the O sound in David's voice that you were working with him on?
SANKIN: He was really hanging onto it. (Imitating O sound) So, no, OK.
GROSS: What exercises did you give David for his O?
SANKIN: With all of these speech sounds, it's really hard to change them unless you hear them, so there's a lot of ear training involved and also demonstration. So I would over-exaggerate so that he could hear what he was doing. And once he heard it, he was able to change it. And if, you know, he had difficulty, then I would model it for him to repeat. So he would work on the words, then he would work on the sentences and then practice that.
GROSS: So we see you, David, practicing a little bit in your movie, "Do I Sound Gay?" Do you think your O's have changed as a result of the exercises...
GROSS: ...And is it something - if it is changed, is it something that you need to still do consciously? Is it more automatic now?
THORPE: Well, my O's haven't changed. And - you know, for many, many different reasons. I mean, you know, the vocal instruction I got from Susan and from another voice coach named Bob Corff was immensely helpful to me, but it ended up not being helpful for the reason that I thought it would be. For me, what I really gained from the voice coaching was actually sort of how to position my larynx and how to speak more naturally. So, for me, the O's - the long O's - are a style, and I kind of embrace that style. And in the film, in fact, I talk a little bit about where that comes from, which is, there's a kind of long-standing stereotype of this kind of aristocratic, kind of pansy figure from Hollywood and film. And I think I absorbed that, growing up, but I embrace it now. And I think it can be fun and funny and a part of who I am. So what I took from Susan was more kind of an ease of speaking and an ability to speak authentically, rather than kind of changing my style to sound less gay.
GROSS: Susan, as a speech and language pathologist, when somebody like David comes to you and says, I'm not comfortable with my voice, I want to change it - in David's case, I want to sound less gay - do you try to convince them that their authentic voice is fine, or do you automatically try to help them change it - if what they have isn't a pathology per se - like it isn't, like, you know, a technical problem that they're having that's interfering with their ability to speak, like a stutter or like a - the kind of lisp that might make it hard to understand what somebody's saying?
SANKIN: Right. I don't try to dissuade them because when people come to see me, they typically, you know, have reached the point where it's really bothering them and it's interfering with communication. So whether it's somebody that comes because they sound gay, or - I work a lot with non-native speakers - they're coming because they're very frustrated in their communication abilities and it's preventing them from communicating and from being comfortable, so it's having a big effect on their life and limiting them in a lot of ways. So if they feel that they want to change - to explore their voice, to explore their speech so that they feel more confident, that's where I typically go with them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests. David Thorpe is the director of the new movie, "Do I Sound Gay?" in which he tries to reflect on his voice and see if he wants to change it or not (laughter). And Susan Sankin is a speech pathologist who he consults with for some help on his voice. So we're going to take a short break then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Thorpe and he's the director of the new documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?" in which he reflects on how he thinks he really does sound very gay, and talks with gay friends about their voices and in his voice and sees speech therapists to try to change his voice, which is still kind of his voice (laughter). And Susan Sankin is a speech pathologist who he consults with for some help on his voice.
David, as we heard in the opening of your movie, you're on the street interviewing people, asking them, do I sound gay? And among the answers they give you is, well, you sound a little artsy-fartsy.
GROSS: So, like, Susan, I want your reaction to that. And David, I want your reaction, too.
SANKIN: That was a unique response, clearly.
GROSS: No, I have heard that from other people. Somebody - a listener once wrote-in, describing somebody - I won't who - as sounding like an art fag.
GROSS: And it's like, you've got to be kidding, you know? So like, I've heard that before.
THORPE: I also love the guy who says, you sound creative...
GROSS: (Laughter). That's right.
THORPE: ...You know, which was a kind of thinly-veiled euphemism once upon a time for gay. I hear that a lot. I hear you sound academic, you sound educated, you sound creative. My parents were academics. I honestly - I was - you know, laughed, myself, the first few times I got the artsy-fartsy thing. I kind of get it, but - and if that's what I am, great. Yeah. And, you know, I'll take it. Slap me in that category.
GROSS: And we should also acknowledge that there's a whole lot of, like, stereotyped projection onto the interpretation of the sound (laughter).
THORPE: Absolutely. I mean, one thing I always like to emphasize, Terry, is that there is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice. There is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype. And for some men, it's not just a stereotype, it's really who they are. And for some gay men, it doesn't apply at all. And it was important to me to put, you know, a very straight-sounding and acting gay man into the movie as well as a more gay-sounding straight man to illustrate that point.
GROSS: Susan, it's my impression - and I'd like to hear your impression - that there are more and more straight men who are starting to have that sound that is categorized as a gay sound.
SANKIN: I think, perhaps, that's coming from the trend to embrace upspeak - one of my pet peeves. But that tendency to kind of speak in that way where you're going up makes your voice sound a little bit musical, and I think that's what people associate with a gay sound to some degree.
GROSS: So you're hearing that more in men and women, and in girls and boys?
SANKIN: The upspeak, definitely. It's just across the genders, it's across age categories. It's an epidemic.
GROSS: OK. And in the second part of our interview, Susan, you and I will talk more about that...
GROSS: ...Particular epidemic and some others, as well (laughter). So now in dealing with David, though, upspeak was one of the things he came to you about. Did you suggest to him that he would sound more authoritative and assertive if he didn't speak that way?
SANKIN: I did, and we did work on that. As a matter of fact, we used the Address at Gettysburg, which was a more serious...
GROSS: (Laughter). That's hysterical.
SANKIN: (Laughter) ...Toned piece. And, you know, he was able to...
GROSS: Oh, Susan, recite that with upspeak, and let's hear how that would sound?
SANKIN: (Imitating upspeak) Four score and seven years ago, our - I don't know if I'm getting this right - our fathers brought forth to this continent a new nation.
SANKIN: Something to that effect. But I made David very conscious of the punctuation, having his voice go down, thinking about this, you know - the seriousness of this piece. And sometimes it's easier to do a more serious piece to bring your voice down, and he was able to do it well. I think the hard thing is always to maintain it in conversational speech, especially in a casual social situation. But definitely it's possible. You know, and again, it goes back to awareness. Once you hear it, you're able to change it, but a lot of people just are unaware of it or don't know how to change it. That's with - a lot of my clients that come to see me say that they're kind of stuck. And I think David indicated this also, that he wasn't - when he was in high school, he didn't speak that way. Correct me if I'm wrong. But after he came out in college, he started - his speech changed, and he was kind of stuck and didn't know how to change it from where he was when he came to see me.
GROSS: Susan, do you think David sounds different now than he did when he first approached you?
SANKIN: I do, in terms of his voice placement. I think his voice is deeper and more resonant. I think that his pitch was all over the place when we first started working, so I do think that he has more control of that. And I think he's not sitting on his vowels the way that he used to, so it does sound different to me.
THORPE: Of course, if you caught me in a gay bar later...
THORPE: ...You might find me sitting on my O's.
SANKIN: And again, that goes back to code-switching, right?
THORPE: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: So David, during the course of making your movie, "Do I Sound Gay?," you ask a lot of people where the gay sound comes from and then you get some interesting theories about it. Do you - is there a theory that you particularly subscribe to now about how the so-called gay voice developed?
THORPE: If I have to speculate about, you know, where the so-called gay voice comes from, for me, both the most predominant, you know, answer is work. You know, one is that as you're acquiring language, you know, you tend to imitate the people you trust and you identify with. And certainly for me, that was a lot of women. I always had a lot of female friends growing up, and I don't think that's atypical for some gay men. And, you know, at the same time I totally get that when I came out, I wanted to be recognized as gay, I wanted the world to know I was gay, and I wanted to fit into this existing community. So I think my voice really did change after I came out. So I think that both the language acquisition theory and the kind of community, you know, learned way of speaking, hold water. It's kind of impossible to really tangle out, you know, a single reason.
GROSS: My guests are David Thorpe, director of the new film, "Do I Sound Gay?," and Susan Sankin, a speech and language pathologist who he consults in the movie. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about, quote, "sounding gay," and I'll talk with Sankin about working with clients on issues like vocal fry and upspeak. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Back to David Thorpe, the director of the new documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?," which is about why and how he tries to change his voice, which he fears sounds stereotypically gay. Thorpe is gay and out, and during the course of the film he tries to understand why his voice bothers him. One of the voice experts he consults, speech and language pathologist Susan Sankin, is also with us.
When you were in, I guess, grade school - was it grade school that you started...
THORPE: Middle school.
GROSS: ...That you started taking speech therapy - that you were put in speech therapy, let's put it that way?
THORPE: Oh. I was (laughter)...
GROSS: How old were you when you were put in speech therapy?
THORPE: I was in elementary school when I was put in speech therapy for a lisp - a distortion of my S, is what the form says.
GROSS: And do you think you actually had a lisp, or do you think you were just sounding gay? (Laughter). I'm not sure what language to use for this. Do you think you had a problem that needed to be corrected, or do you think it was social stereotyping that made you - made people think that you had to sound more normative?
THORPE: You know, that's a great question. It may be that it was a little bit of both because sometimes I do actually find myself doing the - what Susan would call the interdental lisp, so putting my tongue between my teeth so that I say th (ph) instead of ss (ph). So I think I probably did have a bit of a lisp. And some linguist would say, look, everybody has a lisp, but there's a stereotype out there that gay men have this kind of childlike speech defect, and so gay men tend to think that it has something to do with their being gay. At the same time, it's hard to ignore the preponderance of gay men who tell me they had speech therapy.
GROSS: A lot of men have told you that? David Sedaris tells you that.
THORPE: Yeah, he is definitely the most prominent example, and he wrote a wonderful story in his collection "Me Talk Pretty One Day" where he called his speech class - it was a meeting of the future homosexuals of America. I think my linguist friends would probably kill me right now for even entertaining the idea that there's some relationship between an interdental lisp and being gay, but, you know, it's - for me, the jury's still out.
GROSS: When you started talking to your friends about whether you sounded gay and whether they sound gay, was it the first time that you actually talked about it with them or that they had talked about it with anyone?
THORPE: Absolutely. I mean, I - one of the revelations of making this film was, you know, that this is something that had always bothered me, and every time basically I talked to a gay man, I would find out that, you know, he also had either spent a lot of time thinking about his voice or used to be self-conscious about his voice or still felt self-conscious about his voice. And, you know, it was so shocking to me that none of us had ever spoken to each other about it. And there's a dinner party scene in the film with my two best friends, you know, for the last 15 years. And, you know, I learn in that dinner party that one of them has really struggled to accept his voice. And I learned that the other one has struggled with his voice, but just with being gay in general. And he says, you know, I just have a generalized self-loathing. And it was so shocking to me - this kind of casual confession of shame - because it really isn't something we had ever talked about.
GROSS: There's a part in the movie where you're talking to a high school friend, a woman who you've been friends with since high school. So she knew you when you were young, and she said she felt a little betrayed when you came back from college. You spoke differently. You had more of a gay sound. And to her, that sounded inauthentic 'cause it was a change from how you sounded when she knew you best. And I'm wondering if you heard that difference in your voice and how you reacted to what she told you.
THORPE: You know, I had never realized that my voice had changed so much until I started making the film and talking to my friends from high school. But once they mentioned it, I completely understood what they were saying because when I came out, I was so excited to finally have found the courage to come out that...
GROSS: This was in college.
THORPE: In college, yeah, it was my freshman or sophomore year of college - that I just grabbed every gay symbol I could whether it was the way I, you know, cut my hair or dressed, or the way I sounded or the vocabulary I used. It made perfect sense to me when my friends told me this is what had happened. And that moment was a painful but ultimately worthwhile moment for me because it hurt me a little bit when she said that. Because I feel like I'm trying to be myself, and here she is saying, you're a fake. At the same time, I understood what she was saying because I myself wasn't comfortable with my voice, and I didn't know where it came from. I didn't know why it had changed so much. I myself was wondering, what's my real voice?
GROSS: And David, before we took a break, you said to me that you wanted to talk with me about my voice, and I suggested let's get Susan back in for that part of the conversation (laughter). So what did you want to know?
THORPE: Well, you have a beautiful voice that people love listening to. So as somebody who has been self-conscious about his voice, I'm curious to hear a little about, you know, if you worked on your voice or you've always had it. But mostly I'm, you know, it's almost like, what's it like on the other side, Terry?
GROSS: Well, first of all, I'm very self-conscious about my voice even though I'm on the radio all the time. And in terms of what I've done for my voice, I learned to breathe better, but as you can just hear when I said, breathe better - not quite good enough. I stumble and stammer sometimes, and that's because I'm learning - it's in part because I'm learning so much new stuff that I haven't assimilated 'cause there's so little time to do the research every day for a new interview. And I feel like my brain gets caught and my brain is kind of cycling around, trying to figure out what I want to ask and it ends up in a stumble. Does that make any sense, Susan?
SANKIN: It does. Usually what happens - or what helps is pausing. I think we're afraid to pause because we're always afraid somebody's going to step in.
GROSS: And especially on the radio - like, dead air is like death, you know (laughter)?
SANKIN: But you know, actually, if you count to yourself just for a second, it's really not that long. And the other thing is, your listeners are also assimilating the information you're giving to them.
GROSS: Oh, good point.
SANKIN: So a tiny little - a tiny little pause helps them to absorb that information.
THORPE: What do you charge, Susan?
GROSS: Now, I also - and I hesitate to confess this 'cause I sing quite terribly, and it's very hard for me to stay on pitch, but I took singing lessons because I'm so interested in the voice and because I love song. And I found that actually very helpful in understanding the mechanics of my voice better, and also in placing my voice better and in learning more about breathing. It was just like, the most fascinating process I've ever been through in some ways. And Susan, I read, in reading about you, that you sometimes have people sing as part of your vocal lessons, your voice lessons.
SANKIN: I do that for my non-native speakers. When they come to me, not only do they have to learn a new sound system or how to pronounce sounds differently, but we really need to focus on rhythm, intonation and stress patterns. When people listen to them speak and their stress and their rhythm is completely off, it conveys a different message and sometimes people have difficulty understanding them. So if you think about it, somebody for example, like Adele - when she speaks, she has quite a strong accent. But when she sings, she doesn't. It all gets smoothed out. And so for my clients to get that feeling of smoothness, sometimes we'll sing. We'll start with "Happy Birthday" because that's very easy to do and it's very repetitive. But they get that feeling, and it's almost, you know, a completely different experience for them - of course, depending on their native language and whether that language is a very choppy language and whether there's some smoothness. So when they're singing, they learn about breathing and pausing.
GROSS: OK. So David, thank you for talking with us about your new movie.
David Thorpe's new movie is called, "Do I Sound Gay?"
Good luck and be well.
THORPE: Thank you so much, Terry, it was a pleasure speaking to you.
GROSS: After we take a short break we'll bring back Susan Sankin, who is a speech pathologist who he consults in the movie, and we're going to talk about things like the glottal fry, upspeak. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Sankin. She's a speech and language pathologist based in New York who also consults in the new movie, "Do I Sound Gay?"
OK, Susan, let's get to some issues that so many people are concerned about in terms of how speaking patterns seem to be changing. And we talked a little about upspeak in the earlier part of our conversation. And just in case anybody doesn't get what upspeak is, just demonstrate that for us.
SANKIN: Sure, I'd be happy to. It always sounds like you're asking a question, even when you're making a statement. And I don't know what happened to the simple declarative sentence.
GROSS: Yes, OK. So when did you start hearing upspeak, and when did you start hearing it become widespread?
SANKIN: It's been around for a while - I would say at least the last couple of years, but maybe longer than that. Initially when I heard it, it was among younger women. It seems now, though, that men have caught on as well, and it's become as contagious as the common cold. Everybody is using it. In fact, it was kind of interesting - one morning, one of my non-native speakers who was from China came into our session, and she said, I just have to ask you a question. I was in my building this morning in the elevator coming downstairs, and I heard this group of women speaking. And it kept sounding like they were asking questions, but they weren't. She said, is that the way I'm supposed to be speaking?
SANKIN: And I could not say no fast enough.
GROSS: Why does it drive you crazy when you hear upspeak?
SANKIN: I think it makes women sound very immature, very unsure of themselves, and it's almost as if they're asking for approval. And I think that whole pattern is not helpful at all in terms of the way they present themselves, particularly in a professional environment.
GROSS: Let's get to the glottal fry, also known as the vocal fry. Demonstrate it for us.
SANKIN: It's when you're kind of down here. Typically, it occurs at the end of the sentence, when you're finishing what you're saying and you drop down into this croaky, frog-like sound.
GROSS: And are you hearing a lot more of that than you used to?
SANKIN: Absolutely, and I think that that comes about from TV programs, some musicians, singers who use it as a way of trying to get into the deeper pitches, but also kind of as a style. And I think that women are starting to imitate it. What they don't realize is how harmful it could be to your vocal cords. You're really fatiguing and straining them. You're putting them in an unusual position, and it'll be interesting to see, in the near future, how many of these women end up in ENT offices with vocal pathology.
GROSS: Well, what's happening on a physiological level that causes vocal problems that might bring you to a doctor's office?
SANKIN: Well, physiologically, the vocal cords are vibrating very slowly, and there's very loose closure of glottis, the space between the vocal cords. And that allows this air to escape through this opening to create this hoarse, squeaky sound. But what's happening is you're really putting your vocal cords in an unusual position where you're straining them. It's just not natural. They're becoming very fatigued by holding them in that position. When we speak, the vocal cords very naturally come together and come apart. They adduct and abduct, and there's a very nice wave to it. And when you interfere with that pattern, you're causing a strain. It's kind of like if you're walking and you walk a different way. Well, you're going to feel some sort of strain. If you do that for a short period of time, I don't think there's a problem, but I think if it's a repetitive habit that you use over a long term that the vocal cords will show some sort of fatigue. There will be some sort of implication vocally.
GROSS: I think it's becoming the norm. I think there are generational differences, and for younger women, I think it's becoming, if not the norm, a norm - and that they - a lot of - I think young women don't know another way of speaking.
SANKIN: Well, I think that that's probably true. I think that you get locked into this, and unless you're aware of it or somebody points it out to you, I don't know that you'll change it. And I think that the people that speak this way - the women that speak this way don't understand the listener perception of this pattern, which is you sound very fatigued or bored or disinterested. It sounds like you don't have the energy to back up what you're saying. Again, it doesn't project well, and it doesn't project confidence. Somebody who speaks well ends what they're saying with a very strong, clear voice. And when you're dropping into glottal fry, again, it's creating a somewhat hesitant or unsure sort of message to your listener.
GROSS: OK, can I ask you about another issue that so many speakers have?
GROSS: And I'll put myself in this category - what you call filler words - words like like, um, well, so, you know. And they're often very handy when you have to take a pause and think about, what am I saying, what do I mean, what do I want, or when you want to qualify something, and you don't want to say - you don't - you want to - you don't want to say this is absolutely terrible. You want to say it's kind of terrible. You want to qualify it, you know? (Laughter).
GROSS: I'm kind of hungry, you know? I'm not starving. I'm kind of hungry. So, um - I just did it. So, um, um - there you go again. (Laughter).
SANKIN: Right. It's a very hard habit to break.
SANKIN: And I will tell you that the favorite lately - it's changed. The favorite used to be like, and there still is excessive use of like. But the favorite lately is so. So when my clients start a sentence with so, they look at me and they go, I know, not so - not so. We try to eliminate the so's. I think that it's just become habit to speak that way. People are so afraid of pausing. I had mentioned earlier, we're afraid of pausing, especially in New York City. People walk fast. They speak fast. And we're afraid that if we stop for a second, somebody's going to jump in, and we haven't finished what we're saying. Also, instead of just pausing and thinking for a moment...
GROSS: You just paused there. You just paused there. (Laughter).
SANKIN: I did. Instead of pausing and thinking, they hang onto a sound just to let you know, I'm not finished. I think people are just not comfortable with pausing, and that would be the appropriate thing to do. Like is used excessively, and not only among young people anymore, but people who are older, more mature. I think we've just become so used to hearing it that we don't even realize that we're using it.
GROSS: Have you consciously worked on your own speech?
SANKIN: Absolutely. When I first - many years ago, I worked with Sam Chwat. And when I first worked with Sam about 20 years ago, I came in to see him, and we were talking, and he said to me, well, when you leave, I'd like to give you these drill sheets so that you can work on your speech. I grew up in New Jersey. I had very nasal vowels. My R's were not very strong, so I sat with my drill sheets and I did my work. And so I know that the method that I used definitely works.
GROSS: Talk to me like you used to talk.
SANKIN: Well, I would drink a cup of coffee, and then maybe I'd go to the mall. And I talked to my friends, and I would talk to my family. And my family was really nice, but they're all from New York - more like that.
GROSS: Really? Did you have that strong of - that strong an accent?
SANKIN: I cringe. We have videos of when my children were younger. And the first time they heard me speaking, they looked at me and said, mom, did you really talk like that?
SANKIN: Yes, I did. But fortunately, I don't anymore.
GROSS: It's really been a pleasure to talk with you, Susan Sankin. Thank you so much.
SANKIN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist and the founder of the Sankin Speech Improvement in New York. Coming up, John Powers reviews a new novel and a new documentary about the Mexican drug cartels. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.