Journalist Jessica Grose is no stranger to criticism of her voice. When she was co-hosting the Slate podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, she would receive emails complaining about her "upspeak" — a tendency to raise her voice at the end of sentences. Once an older man she was interviewing for an article in Businessweek told her that she sounded like his granddaughter.
"That was the first moment I felt [my voice] was hurting my career beyond just irritating a couple listeners," Grose tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Grose sought help from a voice coach in an effort to make herself sound more professional, but Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert argues that women shouldn't have to change their voices to suit society.
Eckert points out that the complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry (a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice) ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. "People are busy policing women's language and nobody is policing older or younger men's language," Eckert tells Gross.
Grose and Eckert join speech pathologist Susan Sankin for a conversation about upspeak, vocal fry and how women's voices are changing — and whether that's a problem.
On some of the comments that came in about Jessica Grose's voice when she hosted the Slate Double X Gabfest
Jessica Grose: There were some very impassioned commenters on our Facebook page and in my email who objected to my upspeak. I remember one in particular said I sounded like "a valley girl and a faux socialite," and there were a couple of comments that echoed that, and the tenor of them was pretty nasty. And before that I had never really thought about my voice, one way or the other. No one had ever commented on it to me. ... I was hurt — that sounds a little silly, I'm a big girl, I write all the time on the Internet, and so I'm used to criticism, but there's something really personal about your voice, and especially if it's something you've never thought about as unpleasant. It's not fun to hear that people find it irritating.
On linguist Penny Eckert's reaction to the criticism of young women's voices
Penny Eckert: It makes me really angry. And it makes me angry, first of all, because the biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is; men in the U.K, for instance. And it's considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity ... and by the same token, uptalk, it's clear that in some people's voices that has really become a style, but it has been around forever, and people use it stylistically in a variety of ways — both men and women.
On whether or not vocal fry and upspeak are a "problem"
Susan Sankin: For the people who come to see me, they're unhappy with their speech. They don't like the way they sound. They sound tentative to themselves. They sound unsure to themselves as well, and they feel that when they present themselves that it sounds as if they lack confidence, even though they're very capable, and they know that they have the capacity to sound better, more confident, more assured with some help. They just have developed a speech pattern that's a habit, and they don't know how to break out of it. When we present ourselves, the way we speak is our verbal image. Much as the way people in the professional world typically don't go to work in sweats and a t-shirt, they are more concerned about how they present themselves, a lot of the clients that come to see me are concerned about how they're presenting themselves verbally.
Grose: Patterns change. Just to hop off the statement you made about wearing sweatpants; Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie to work every day. Because he is a young man, that's the dominant Silicon Valley way of dressing now. It wasn't 20 years ago or 30 years ago, but now that's what it is. And even young women in Silicon Valley — I've read personal essays about how they don't feel comfortable dressing up and looking cute for work because they feel like it won't get them taken seriously — they also have to wear hoodies and look like Mark Zuckerberg. So it sort of feels like even when the culture is changing it changes so that usually white men are still the defaults and how we should all be behaving.
On how attitudes toward hearing vocal fry, upspeak and other youthful ways of talking are generational
Eckert: I was shocked the first time I heard this style on NPR. I thought, "Oh my god, how can this person be talking like this on the radio?" Then I played it for my students, and I said, "How does she sound?" and they said, "Good, authoritative." And that was when I knew that I had a problem. ... That I was not a part of the generation that understood what that style means. ... There's been a change and those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old.
On the idea of learning about your voice and working with it to sound the way you want to sound
Sankin: I continue to feel that glottal fry used in that way and also upspeak used as pervasively ... is just distracting from the message. For me, and I know for a lot of people, it appears to distract from what people are trying to say. And I've heard what everybody's been saying. It still has a feeling to me of sounding hesitant, less sure of yourself, and less decisive. And I might be old, too ... but there are a lot of things that I really like in spite of my age. This just happens to be one of the things that I think is just an irritating way of speaking.
On accepting the wide diversity of ways people speak
Eckert: You only get change by not allowing it to be a problem to you. And I think this is something that has been huge in all of the years that people have been studying minority dialects. African-American vernacular English is a very rich dialect, and yet little kids are told they better not speak that if they want to succeed in the world. So the question is, do you knuckle under to that or do you try to make the world change a little bit? And certainly, that's how I feel about a lot of the women's styles is that if we all cower under and say do what I did in 1973 [consciously speak lower to be taken seriously], well then, what's going to change?
On why Grose stopped trying to change her voice, even after a session with a speech coach
Grose: I felt like it was blunting my emotional range. I felt when I was self-conscious about my voice it lost that expressive, connective quality ... There was something lost when I wasn't being myself, whatever that is. ... I have started thinking of voice almost as the way I think about outfits. If I'm going for a job interview I'm going to wear a different outfit than when I'm out with my friends. And before I wouldn't have thought, "Oh I use a different voice when I'm at a job interview and when I'm out with my friends", and now I do think of it a little bit more as these two separate things, whereas before I had zero awareness of it. And I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing. I think it's just about wanting to change for yourself instead of feeling like you're being forced to change by external forces.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I started working in radio in the 1970s, women were first starting to get a foothold in broadcasting. Where I worked then, many women, hosts and guests, were having trouble with sibilance when they were on mic. That is, the mic exaggerated the highest frequency of their S's, making them sound very hissy. Women were told it was a problem with their voices. We women figured that the mics in our studio just weren't designed for women's voices. And I think maybe that was true because when I moved to WHYY, where there were different mics, it stopped being a problem. This is just a little blip in the long history of women being told there's something wrong with their voices. Now it's taking the form of complaints about upspeak, vocal fry and what's sometimes called the sexy baby voice. Young women are being told their voices lack authority or are simply annoying. And these complaints aren't just coming from older man. They're coming from older women, including feminists. So what's going on? Are women's voices changing? Are the complainers just resistant to change? Or are there genuine problems with how many young women speak? I have three guests who are each coming from a different perspective. Journalist Jessica Grose is a former senior editor at Slate magazine who also hosted Slate's podcast DoubleX Gabfest. She's now the editor of Lenny, which is a forthcoming email newsletter about women's issues, politics and culture from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. They're producers of HBO's "Girls." Dr. Penny Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and is co-author of the book "Language And Gender." Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist who works with non-native speakers and people in a variety of different professions, including actors. Her clients include people who think their speech is interfering with their ability to advance in their careers.
Jessica Grose, Susan Sankin, Penny Eckert, welcome all of you to FRESH AIR.
Jessica, I want to start with you and with the response you got to your voice when you were hosting the Slate podcast. So how did people respond to your voice when they first heard it?
JESSICA GROSE: There were some very impassioned commenters on our Facebook page and in my email who objected to my upspeak. I remember one in particular said I sounded like a Valley girl and a faux socialite, and there were a couple comments that echoed that. And the tenor of them was pretty nasty. And before that, I had never really thought about my voice one way or the other. No one had ever commented on it to me.
GROSS: So what was your response when you first heard these negative...
GROSE: (Laughter) I was hurt. I mean, that sounds a little silly. I'm a big girl. I write all the time on the Internet, and so I'm used to criticism. But there's something really personal about your voice and especially if it's something you've never thought about as unpleasant. It's not fun to hear that people find it irritating.
GROSS: In other things that some other people found irritating about your voice, did you ask yourself, OK, what percentage of this is sexism? What percentage of this is generational? What percentage of this is, like, oh, maybe I have a real problem?
GROSE: I thought it was probably mostly generational, only because podcasting and radio is such a very specific thing where they're hearing your disembodied voice and they're not seeing you. They're not seeing your presence. They're not seeing your gestures. They're not seeing the whole package. And in my career, up to that point, I'd had no problem getting jobs, being in positions of authority, doing well in interviews, and so I didn't really see it as a problem beyond in this one specific context.
GROSS: So what did you do? I mean, you actually tried to take some voice lessons, right?
GROSE: Yeah. So that actually wasn't until after I wasn't on the podcast anymore. I had gone freelance. And I was working for a lot of more business-focused publications, where as previously I had written more about arts and culture. So I remember I was interviewing somebody for an article in Businessweek. And it was a man in his 60s probably - 50s or 60s - and he said, you sound like my granddaughter. And that was meant to say, I don't really take you that seriously. You sound so young. I think he even asked me how old I was, which as a journalist that's not really the response you want. And so that was the first moment where I felt it was hurting my career beyond just irritating a couple of listeners. Because other listeners had emailed me supportively when I said, you know - when these commenters had said they didn't like my voice, other commenters had said, well, I like her voice. So then it could just - you could chalk it up to a matter of opinion. But when it was actually in the line of doing journalism that someone seemed to not be taking me seriously enough, that's what gave me pause. And I still found it irritating. And at that point, I found it mildly sexist because I don't think he would've said something similar to a man - a young man who used some of the verbal tics that perhaps I used. It did make me want to get a handle on it.
GROSS: So what did you do?
GROSE: I went to a voice coach once. And she recorded me, and she gave me a couple tips. And in the process of doing interviews, I would say for the next month or two, I used a lot of her tips. And I found some of them helpful, and I found some of them not so helpful. And at this point, that all took place about two years ago. And now I don't think about it at all. I don't know if I've internalized some of the things that she taught me or if I've just discarded them because I'm not doing business pieces anymore and it doesn't seem to be relevant. But I don't know if it's had lasting import. I'm sure your listeners who may or may not be irritated by my voice can tell you.
GROSS: Did she change your pitch?
GROSE: I wouldn't say she changed my pitch. It did make me more aware of the upspeak. I thought about it more. I think sometimes I overcompensated to where I was maybe doing vocal fry, which I know is something else people complain about, just to - in an effort to make my voice slightly deeper and more even. I'm doing it right now.
GROSE: I'm doing vocal fry. It's just that - and that was sort of why I moved away from it, is in some ways, I feel like I can't win and young women can't win because if we're not doing upspeak, then we're compensating, and we're doing something else that people find irritating. It's like advice that women get in the workplace, where it's be aggressive, but don't be too aggressive because that's off-putting. And so ultimately, I found I just had to be myself and not think about it because I wasn't going to win.
GROSS: I want to read you - you might already have read this - but the podcast 99% Invisible. One of the producers there - Katie Mingle - wrote a letter in response to the emails they get about women's voices. So I just wanted to read this.
(Reading) Hello. You've written in to voice your dislike of one of our female reporter's voices. You're not alone. We have a filter set up that automatically sends these types of emails into a folder labeled zero priority. We'll review this folder and consider the complaints within, well, never. Amazingly, we don't even have a folder for our complaints about the male voices on our show because we've never gotten one. Isn't that strange? We think so. Anyway, hope you can continue to enjoy our free podcast somehow. And if you can't, there are plenty of shows that don't feature women's voices at all (laughter).
So that's from 99% Invisible. Very funny letter, I think.
GROSE: Yep. I love that.
GROSS: Yeah. So, Penny Eckert, you're a linguist, professor at Stanford. Let me bring you into the conversation. What's your reaction to hearing the kinds of criticisms that were directed to Jessica that I'm sure you've heard directed to many women about their voices from people who focus on how irritating they find upspeak or fry.
PENNY ECKERT: It makes me really angry. And it makes me angry, first of all, because the biggest use of vocal fry traditionally had been men. And it still is men in the UK, for instance. And it's considered a sign of hypermasculinity. And nobody ever complains that men use vocal fry, even though in the past it has driven me crazy 'cause I've thought they're just being hypermasculine, trying to be authoritative by sounding even lower than everybody else. And the business of these hesitation markers - um, uh, just and so - those are not female. And yet when people are picking on women, somehow that's female, and by the same token, uptalk. It's clear that in some people's voices that has really become a stall, but it's been around forever. And people use it stylistically in a variety of ways, both men and women. So the disparity in people's noticing is just very clear to me. People are busy policing young women's language, and nobody is policing older or younger men's language.
GROSS: Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist. What's your take on that? Do you think it's people who are policing women?
SUSAN SANKIN: You know, my experience is more anecdotal. And I think about the people who come to see me, and it's not just young women. It's young men, and it's men and women of other ages as well. Perhaps women take more criticism than men do. I do agree with that. But I don't think they're the only ones who have the problem.
GROSS: Now let me ask...
SANKIN: Some people will object to me calling it a problem.
ECKERT: I was going to say, what do you mean by, the problem?
SANKIN: Exactly. I knew as soon as the words were out of my mouth.
SANKIN: I'm in hostile territory here.
GROSS: Well, what do you mean by - why are you calling it a problem, Susan?
SANKIN: For the people who come to see me, they're unhappy with their speech. They don't like the way they sound. They sound tentative to themselves. They sound unsure to themselves as well. And they feel that when they present themselves that it sounds as if they lack confidence, even though they're very capable and they know that they have the capacity to sound better, more confident, more assured with some help. They just have developed a speech pattern that's a habit, and they don't know how to break out of it. When we present ourselves, the way we speak is our verbal image. Much as the way people in the professional world typically don't go to work in sweats and a T-shirt, they are more concerned about how they present themselves.
A lot of the clients that come to see me are concerned about how they're presenting themself verbally. Very often they say that our first image is created from the first words that you utter. So for example, one of the exercises I do with my clients is to have them introduce themselves and tell me what they do. More often than not, from the very beginning when they say their name, they are using upspeak. If nothing else, the one thing they should be able to say with confidence is their name. When they appear at a meeting or when they're doing a presentation, they need to start by sounding confident from the time that they introduce themselves.
ECKERT: Could I interject a little thing about upspeak?
GROSS: And this is Penny the linguist chiming in. Yes.
ECKERT: (Laughter) So men and women in Australia have been using rising intonation on declarative sentences for a very, very long time. I know an engineer - a man about his late 60s - who rises at the end of every one of his declarative sentences. And when I first heard him, which was a long time ago, it drove me crazy. But it never occurred to me that he sounded tentative. I just thought that's a really weird intonational pattern, and it sounded weird. But the reason that everybody thinks that it sounds tentative is because it's women who are doing it. And there's this - I think - this automatic connection between insecurity, which is a female stereotype, and certain kinds of patterns.
GROSE: Right, but - I mean, patterns change. I mean, just to hop off the statement you made about wearing sweatpants, Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie to work every day because he's a young man. That's the dominant Silicon Valley way of dressing now. It wasn't 20 years ago or 30 years ago, but now that's what it is. And even young women in Silicon Valley - I've read personal essays about how they don't feel comfortable dressing up and looking cute for work because they feel like it won't get them taken seriously. They also have to wear hoodies and look like Mark Zuckerberg. So it sort of feels like even when the culture is changing, it changes so that usually white men are still the default and how we should all be behaving.
GROSS: We're talking about young women's voices. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about young women's voices and how many young women feel attacked for how they speak. I have three guests. Jessica Grose is a former senior editor at Slate magazine who also hosted Slate's podcast "DoubleX Gabfest." She's now the editor of Lenny, which is a forthcoming email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner about women's issues, politics and culture. Dr. Penny Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and is co-author of the book "Language And Gender." Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist who works with non-native speakers and people in a variety of different professions, including actors. When we left off, we were talking about upspeak.
I think part of the issue in America is that upspeak, things are ending with a question mark. Even declarative sentences have the kind of melodic style that we associate with a question 'cause questions end in an up, right? So people, I think, associate the fact that it sounds melodically like a question they associate that with tentativity, uncertainty, but as a couple of you have pointed out, the melodies are changing and therefore the melodies are indicating different things. Does make sense?
GROSE: Yes. I mean, there was a really interesting study that The Times cited in 2014 in an article about upspeak when a linguist cited a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. So it was actually an aggressive way of speaking. Obviously, that's a very specific milieu, but it can read differently as long as we know to read it differently.
GROSS: OK, so there's two things I want to play for all of you and for our audience. And one is I think it's obligatory when you're doing a discussion on this that you play a clip from Shosh on "Girls" - in the Lena Dunham series "Girls" - 'cause she's the kind of caricatured queen of upspeak. So here's just a clip from "Girls." And this is Zosia Mamet on "Girls."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
ZOSIA MAMET: (As Shoshanna Shapiro) I did something kind of crazy. I made an Internet dating profile. OK, I know. It sounds kind of nuts, but my nutrition teacher, who's, like, so cool, met her boyfriend on Match.com who's, like, super cute and totally perf, and they're, like, the most happy together. And I joined electrichellos.com because it's the most expensive subscription and ugly people do Match. And I got this message from this, like, kind of great-sounding guy. His name is Bryce (ph), which, like, hello, good name. He works in product development, which is, like, perfect for me because I love products, and he's Jewish.
GROSS: OK, so that's a caricature, that character. But I think part of what it's caricaturing - and, Jessica, I'd be interested in your response to this since you are editing a new newsletter that Lena Dunham and her co-producer Jenni Konner are publishing on women's issues. So I think part of that character is about being white, maybe suburban. I'm not sure where she's supposed to be coming from, like, the city or the suburbs. But I think a lot of people associate that with a suburban sound and with a very middle-class sound and with a certain sense of entitlement. I think that's what her character kind of personifies - you can correct me if I'm wrong - and that some people associate her sound with all of those traits. So thoughts? And is that - is that playing into what people think they're hearing?
GROSE: My - I mean, my take on the whole thing is that attacking or criticizing individuals for the way that they speak is sort of not the point. I feel like you can take any fictional character or any person and the way that they speak says something about where they're from and who they are. I guess I just object to the idea that young women are the only people who - when they are projecting who they are and where they're from with their voices - are the ones that are criticized for it because I'm sure a young man who grew up upper-middle class in the suburbs has his own vocal tics. And why aren't those as annoying or why aren't those as bad or why - you know? It's the sense of judgment and critique that is attached to those upper-middle class, white suburban traits only when you're talking about a woman, which is not to say that there's not things to criticize or there isn't a myopia to upper-middle-class white suburban girls. There completely is, but again, I don't - you never see the sort of parallel young man getting made fun of in quite the same way or getting critiqued in quite the same way.
GROSS: I feel like I hear a lot of young men with upspeak and with vocal fry. Does everybody else hear that, too, or...
GROSE: I honestly don't think about it. I - I have - it...
GROSS: And see, that's really interesting.
GROSE: See how my voice got (laughter). I never - until I read about vocal fry, I never thought of it as a thing until my voice got criticized on the radio. I mean, I had heard of upspeak and people complaining about upspeak, but I hadn't thought about the way I did or did not do it.
ECKERT: Creak usually doesn't happen just by itself. People don't just creak and creak and creak. It's usually because young women are using much wider intonational patterns. So they have higher rises and lower falls and a lower fall brings them into the lower end of their pitch range so that their vocal cords start vibrating aperiodically. And frequently - I mean, we've used creak forever. I mean, Mae West used creak to show sort of sexiness. Creak is something that happens when there's low subglottal pressure. So it has been always used to show that you're tired, to show that you're sick, sometimes - and - or even satisfied - sexually satisfied or if you've eaten something really good or you're tasting chocolate, people use creak to show their satisfaction. They say, oh, I love chocolate.
GROSS: And I just want to point out, when you say creak, that's the sound a lot of people call vocal fry or glottal fry.
ECKERT: Yeah, linguists call it creak and other people call it vocal fry.
GROSS: My guests are linguist Penny Eckert, speech and language pathologist Susan Sankin and journalist Jessica Grose. We'll talk about generational differences and how young women's voices are perceived after we take a short break. And Maureen Corrigan will review an enjoyable novel about an unhappy family. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview about young women's voices and how many young women feel attacked by older people who complain that young women's voices often don't sound authoritative and often do sound irritating. I have three guests. Journalist Jessica Grose is a former senior editor at Slate magazine, who also hosted Slate's podcast "DoubleX Gabfest." She's now the editor of Lenny, which is a forthcoming email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner about women's issues, politics, and culture. Dr. Penny Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and co-author of the book "Language and Gender." Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist who works with non-native speakers and people in a variety of different professions, including actors. When we left off, we were talking about vocal fry, which linguists call creak. Some people trace the growth of creak - can I put it that way - the widening...
ECKERT: The stylization of creak, right.
GROSS: Yeah, the stylization of creak to the Kardashians. And so I'm going to play a clip from the Kardashians - from their reality TV show - and then ask you if you think there's any connection, if you think there's any validity in saying that they helped spread creak or fry. So here's the Kardashians - Kim speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS")
KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: I think you look amazing.
KYLIE JENNER: Really?
WEST: Like, amazing. Like, I'm loving this short hair. You just, like - will you, like, bank a couples selfies?
KYLIE JENNER: I love the short hair, right?
WEST: Just bank a couple selfies.
KYLIE JENNER: Yeah, I did my makeup so fast. I'm just not feeling myself.
WEST: Your lips look amazing.
KYLIE JENNER: Really?
KYLIE JENNER: Kendall said they were too big yesterday.
KENDALL JENNER: Are you talking about her lips?
WEST: I don't want you to get, like, carried away. Lips aren't permanent. But, like, if they ask about your lips, like, own up to it.
KENDALL JENNER: I don't want you guys are even freaking out or talking about this, though.
GROSS: OK, so that's a clip from "The Kardashians." So let's ask the linguist, Penny Eckert. Is there any connection, do you think, to the Kardashians and their reality TV show and the spread of creak or vocal fry?
ECKERT: Well, it was - I mean, they're doing something that was already around, right? They're doing it for a reason. They didn't invent it. But I think one of the ways that this has spread - and this is a couple of my students who have gotten sort of absolutely convinced of this - that people imitate the Kardashians. They mock them. And then gradually as part of a - it's kind of a joke, but then you incorporate that into your own style when you're making the kinds of social moves that the Kardashians are making. So it creeps into people's styles, but not necessarily, oh, they talk like that so I'm going to talk like that.
GROSS: Now, two examples I just played you of the character of Shosha in "Girls" and now the Kardashians. These are characters. You know, the character of Shosh is a caricature, and the Kardashians are mocked so frequently in our culture. And so I don't want to be saying that figures of mockery are the roots of how women speak today. I just want to make it clear I'm choosing these 'cause these are, like, extreme edges and that people cite them as exemplary of certain speech issues.
GROSE: But I don't necessarily think they should be figures of mockery. I mean, Kim Kardashian has a multimedia empire.
GROSE: Yes, she is mocked and so are lots of other public figures. I find myself wanting to defend Kim. And yes, Shoshana is a character and a caricature, but she has a lot of admirable qualities as well. So, I mean, I don't object so much to these examples.
GROSS: So here's a question with vocal fry. There are people who say it's really bad for your vocal cords. And I think, Susan, you have that position. And there are linguists who say not true. There are a lot of cultures where people just speak that way and, Penny, I think that's your position. Can you each, like, describe your...
ECKERT: Well, I haven't seen any medical evidence that it is dangerous for your vocal cords. I think that if somebody yelled a whole lot they might damage their vocal cords. But there are languages in which voice quality is what we - you know, is phonemic, as we say. So that the same word pronounced with creaky voice has a different meaning from a word spoken with breathy voice or with what we call modal voice. And in fact, I haven't heard anybody rushing British men to the hospital because they use a lot of creak.
GROSS: Susan, as a speech and language pathologist, your thoughts on whether creak or fry has vocal consequences in terms of your vocal cords and the health of your voice.
SANKIN: Right, I have heard ENTs say that it can cause damage. And for a lot of the languages where it's a habitual pattern - as you develop from a young age, that's how you're training and using your vocal cords. And I think when you start to fall into that pattern later on, I think that it can cause some damage. Again, I'm not a doctor, so I can't say that I've looked at people's vocal cords and I've seen it, but I have heard ENTs say that they do notice that it can cause damage. And sometimes the jury is out on that as well.
ECKERT: I was going to say, how do they know that that's what's causing it?
SANKIN: I guess it depends on what they get from a clinical examination, both in terms of what they're hearing and what they're seeing.
GROSS: I think, in a lot of ways, the changes that people are hearing in women's voices are becoming normative. That if there's been a generational change, my perception is that it's becoming just more and more like that's how people sound. And I want to play an example of that. There's a Sam Adams beer commercial narrated by a young woman who has some amount of creak or fry in her voice. And I think this ad is an example of how just normative it is. So let's just hear it and then we can talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At Sam Adams, we celebrate the independence that made us an original craft beer pioneer. We bring our best friends to work. We treat every day like casual Friday. We take beer seriously - not ourselves. We brew beers we want to drink. We hold ourselves to our own standards.
GROSS: OK, so that's an ad. So, Penny Eckert, the linguist on our panel, thoughts?
ECKERT: Yeah. Well, of course, I actually did an experiment about a year ago. I played the same woman using sort of a creaky voice. And I played another clip of her not using that style. And it was just a very short clip. It's like, he says da duh da duh da (ph), right? And then another one where the fall - there's not so much a fall and there's no creak. Like, he says da duh da (ph). And it was really stunning because people over the age of 40 heard the more conservative utterance as authoritative whereas the young people were more likely to find both of them authoritative, but also the older people thought the conservative one was more authoritative than the younger people did. So there's a - definitely there's been a change. And those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old.
GROSS: Do you put yourself in the category of people who are bothered by some of those features as a listener?
ECKERT: Yes. Yeah, I have to - I'm a linguist. I'm a sociolinguistic. I love change. I love stylistic stuff, but I'm also a person in the world with my prejudices and so on. So, yeah, I have, but it bothers me only when it becomes just all over the place because I was shocked the first time I heard this style on NPR. I took it - I thought, oh, my God, how can this person be talking like this on the radio? And then I played it for my students. And I said, how does she sound? And they said, oh, good, authoritative. And that was when I knew that I had a problem.
GROSS: That you had a problem.
ECKERT: Sure. Yeah, that I had a problem. That I was not part of the generation that understood what that style means 'cause styles have meaning. And one of the things that everybody's trying to guess what that meaning is. So people are running around saying that younger women are trying - are using creak so they can sound more authoritative. Well, that's just based on the knowledge that men have lower voices. That's really jumping to a ridiculous conclusion. And I don't think that older people are in a position to figure out what this - what these features actually mean, but they're meaningful.
GROSS: Jessica, I'd be interested in your reaction to hearing that commercial, that ad.
GROSE: It's funny. I've seen that commercial on TV a bunch, and I never noticed her voice, but hearing it disembodied was annoying (laughter). I feel like a traitor saying that, but it really is - I found it irritating. So I wouldn't have noticed it in context, but now that it's pulled out of its context - yeah, that was my reaction.
ECKERT: And I liked it.
GROSE: Everybody's got taste and opinions.
GROSS: Susan, our speech and language pathologist, your take?
SANKIN: I certainly did not like it.
SANKIN: You know, I can - I continue to feel that glottal fry used in that way and also upspeak used as pervasively as it's using is just distracting from the message. For me, and I know for a lot of people, it appears to distract from what people are trying to say. And it just - you know, I've heard what everybody's been saying. It still has a feeling to me of sounding hesitant, less sure of yourself and less decisive. And I might be old too, but you know...
GROSS: I was going to say, you are over 40.
SANKIN: Yeah, I definitely am, but, you know, there are a lot of other things that I really like in spite of my age and this just happens to be one of the things that I think is just an irritating way of speaking.
GROSS: We're talking about young women's voices. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about young women's voices and how many young women feel attacked for how they speak. I have three guests. Jessica Grose is a former senior editor at Slate Magazine who also hosted Slate's podcast, DoubleX Gabfest. She's now the editor of "Lenny," which is a forthcoming email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner about women's issues, politics and culture. Dr. Penny Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and co-author of the book "Language And Gender." Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist who works with non-native speakers and people in a variety of different professions, including actors.
In thinking about how our perception of voices - and particularly of women's voices - changes over time, I know when I started in radio, which was back in the '70s, women's voices were not considered authoritative. You didn't find women on the radio, period. Maybe you had, like, the sexy FM late-night DJ. That was about it. Sure, there was - there were occasional exceptions. But, you know, they were the exceptions that proved the rule. Susan Stamberg on NPR was the first woman to anchor a national news show. And she really broke ground there. And NPR, that was, like, the first place where you had, like, there was a woman congressional correspondent at the same time that there was a woman legal correspondent at the same time that there was a woman anchoring the news. It was - it was kind - it was kind of remarkable. And things have changed, I think, a lot since then. But there's still a lot of stigma attached to a lot of women's speaking styles.
>>GROSS Yeah, go ahead.
ECKERT: I agree with that. And particularly - so when I first started teaching in 1973, I lowered the pitch of my voice intentionally in order to be taken seriously. I mean, I was one of three women in a faculty of 35 people - in a department of 35 people. And it was clear they didn't want me there (laughter) - or some people didn't want me there. Now I have - we get new assistant professors. They're not worried about trying to sound authoritative. I have a colleague who has a very high, girly voice. And it's not a problem. And it may be a problem for some people. But you only get change by not allowing it to be a problem to you. And I think this is something that has been huge in all of the years that people have been studying minority dialects. African-American Vernacular English is a very rich dialect. And yet, little kids are told they better not speak that if they want to succeed in the world. So the question is, do you - do knuckle under to that? Or do you try to make the world change a little bit? And certainly that's how I feel about a lot of the women's styles, is that if we all cower under and say, do what I did in 1973, well, then, what's going to change?
GROSS: Susan, I have a question for you. And Susan is the speech and language pathologist on our panel. When you were on a few weeks ago on part one of this conversation and we were talking about the movie "Do I Sound Gay?" - and then I kept you to just talk with you about your work helping - helping people who come to you who are non-native speakers and they want help with learning how to speak fluently and understandably and other people who do public speaking or whatever and come to you for help, I asked you about your own speaking style and if you had changed. And you talked about how you used to have a very thick Jersey accent. And when you started to do this work, you tried to get rid of the Jersey accent, and you succeeded. And some people in our audience were very upset by that. And they thought that that was the equivalent of, like, being African-American and lightening your skin and that it was just like erasing yourself - erasing, like, your authentic voice to try to sound more normative. And I'd really like to hear your response to that.
SANKIN: I heard from some of those people.
GROSS: Did you?
SANKIN: I did. And this is what I'll say. For me, the way I spoke was not - I didn't think reflected who I was. It also interfered with my ability to professionally do what I wanted to do. I needed to be a better role model for my clients. And speaking with a nasal New Jersey pattern did not allow me to do that. So, you know, I know some people were offended by that. And what I would say is if you like the way you sound, if you're comfortable with your speech, that's great. But if you feel that it interferes with what your personal or professional goals are, that's when you correct it or change it.
GROSS: One of the things we look for when we're considering somebody as a guest on the show is that they're expressive. Whether they have, you know - no matter what kind of speaking style they have, we want them to be expressive and engaging. And there's ways of doing that with every kind of voice. It's the monotone that I think is the biggest problem...
SANKIN: Yeah, that's what I...
GROSS: You know, the droning - the droning monotone. Like, it's so easy to stop paying attention. And Jessica, I was talking to you earlier about the comments you got about your voice when you were doing a podcast for Slate. I mean, you have an expressive voice.
GROSS: And you have a range of notes in your voice.
GROSE: Well, that was actually part of why I think I abandoned what the voice coach told me was because I felt like it was blunting my emotional range. I felt when I was self-conscious about my voice, it lost that expressive, connective quality, which is also important for a journalist to have. So I'm talking less about how I appeared on the podcast but how I appeared when I was doing interviews. And I really felt like there was something - especially during phone interviews - there was something lost when I wasn't being myself, whatever that is. So I don't know. I mean, it was a tough - it's a tough question. I mean, it's - I do have - I have started thinking of it - thinking of voice almost as the way I think about outfits. If I'm going for a job interview, I'm going to wear a different outfit than when I'm out with my friends. And before, I wouldn't have thought, oh, I use a different voice when I'm at a job interview and when I'm out with my friends. And now I do think of it a little bit more as these two separate things, whereas before, I had zero awareness of it. And I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing. I think it's just about wanting to change for yourself instead of feeling like you're being forced to change by external forces.
GROSS: That's a very good distinction, right. Jessica Grose, Penny Eckert, Susan Sankin, thank you all for talking with us.
GROSE: Thank you.
SANKIN: Thank you.
ECKERT: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: Jessica Grose is the editor of "Lenny," which is a forthcoming email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner about women's issues, politics and culture. Dr. Penny Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University and is co-author of the book "Language And Gender." Susan Sankin is a speech and language pathologist at Sankin Speech Improvement in New York. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan has a new novel to recommend. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.