As a speech professor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies, at the beginning of each semester, I tell my students in the AAS Degree paralegal program that one of the goals of the speech class is for them to find their voices. By that, I mean that I want them to discover their true way of expressing themselves, whether it is humorously, poetically, or perhaps with an authoritative tone they didn’t know they possessed.
I also point out to them that they are each born with certain qualities to their physical voices that they may or may not like. Of course, it is possible to change the physical voice. Actors, for example, besides ridding themselves of accents, often work with a coach to lower their voice or make it more resonant or vibrant, and they learn breathing techniques that help with vocal projection.
Vocal Viruses are Infectious Habits
Why, then, when we put so much focus on sounding good, would people deliberately adopt weird vocal habits that are unsettling to the listener? Currently, for example, vocal “fads” exist that make the voice sound gravelly, childish, and whiny. There is even a grating vocal style known as “tattered voice,” heard in both male and female actors and voiceover artists. These people sound as if they have been up for three days straight, chain smoking and drinking Everclear.
Voice experts have dubbed these unattractive vocal habits “vocal viruses,” referring to the ease with which they are transmitted, spread like internet content that “goes viral.” The term “virus” also reflects the notion that bad vocal habits infect and compromise the act of communication—not to mention, they are as unpleasant to the listener as coming down with a bad cold.
If you are part of a group that is together day after day, whether in a family or in a law firm, it is easy to unconsciously pick up a bad vocal habit. Speaking and listening to others is how, since the dawn of civilization, mankind has perpetuated language—and unappealing vocal quirks.
Here, I’ve identified 4 common vocal viruses and suggest how to keep from adopting them. At Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), we want you to grow your career, not make it sick.
1. Blame it on Britney.
Lately, the media have reported on a rampant vocal virus called “vocal fry,” a speech habit practiced mostly by women. Vocal fry occurs when someone is speaking normally and then, towards the end of a phrase or sentence, lowers the pitch (pitch = the highness or lowness) of her voice while making a croaking sound. Think Kim Kardashian, practitioner par excellence of this scourge on the spoken word.
The term comes from “vocal fry register,” which indicates the lowest notes a singer can achieve. These notes are reached by allowing air to pass through the vocal cords, which produces a rattling sound. The singers Britney Spears and Ke$ha have long used it, which is where many young women originally picked it up.
You can hear frequent examples of this bizarre trend by listening to NPR’s radio programming (on 88.7 FM in Houston). Many of the younger female journalists combine vocal fry with a clipped, affected speech pattern. The resulting delivery sounds snobbish, pseudo-intellectual and off-putting.
2. Like, totally!
In the early 80s, Moon Zappa made a novelty record that parodied the mall-dwelling teens of the San Fernando Valley. Who knew that three decades later grown-up men and women around the country would be using the “Valspeak” she was mocking?
The spread of this goofy dialect is stealthy because it is made up of a number of components, and it can infiltrate your speech in bits and pieces. You might only pick up the habit of drawing out the last syllable of a word (“I was with my fatherrrrr”) or you might couple that with rushing words together prior to a drawn-out word (“I-live-in-a-really-good-part-of-Sugar-laaaaand”).
Valspeak requires that you use wild variations of inflection, bringing your pitch way up or down on certain syllables. Also, vowels sounds are changed, with the short “a” replaced by “ah” (“The restaurant was just jahmed”) and the long “o” becoming “ew” (as in, “I’m SEW SURE!”). Wait a minute, am I teaching you how to do this?
Needless to say, it’s hard to take someone seriously who spouts Valspeak. It causes you to sound trivial and unprofessional. The last person who wants to hear you using this patois is anyone you deal with on the job.
3. "Are you listening?"
For me, a particularly annoying vocal virus is “upspeak,” a fad especially among Millennials (ages 25 to 34) that turns a declarative statement into a question. Upspeak is a big part of Valspeak but it has assumed a vocal niche of its own.
Inflection plays the key role in creating upspeak. At the end of a statement such as, “I signed up for a workshop,” the voice rises in pitch on the last syllable. The pitch is so high that it creates a whiny sound as well as an interrogative one, making the effect doubly annoying.
With upspeak, a string of sentences comes out like one long query: “I signed up for a workshop? But it turned out I didn’t like it? So I found another one?” The listener feels like s/he is being prodded, as if the speaker is saying, “Are you paying attention?” with the subtext of, “Do I make myself clear?” which leads to the inferred subtext, “Do I know what I’m saying?”
Upspeak makes you sound tentative and insecure, diminishing your authority every time you speak. This trend is so widespread among Millennials, both men and women, that it threatens to become the norm. Until that happens, and even afterwards, don’t let it creep into your speech.
4. "I'm smart, but not credible."
Recently, I heard a female reporter on a national radio show talking about the stock market. Let’s say her report went something like this: “The market took a big hit last week, its worst weekly performance since April. The Dow was down 1.6 percent, an abrupt end to a solid month of gains...” and so on. The woman knew her stuff. Her report was clear, concise, and delivered in the high-pitched, whispery voice of a seven-year old.
Ladies, we must banish this childish vocal virus, now! It has spread to every facet of commerce and industry that women populate, which is to say, it’s everywhere. You hear brilliant women attorneys, financial analysts, educators, scientists, all speaking like little girls. The intelligence is there, the vocabulary is there, but the mature woman has vanished without a trace.
I’m not here to expound on why this disagreeable practice has taken hold, although I have my theory. Frankly, I don’t know the percentage of women who never develop a grown-up’s voice versus the percentage who adopt a childish voice in adulthood because they think it’s useful or prudent. All I know is that nothing puts a damper on one’s credibility like a tiny little voice piping up in a meeting or speaking to a client on the phone.
Ward off the virus!
How do you keep from succumbing to a vocal virus? First, you have to recognize one when you hear it. Become aware of people’s vocal patterns and styles in general. For example, does someone at work speak especially fast or unusually slowly? Do you know someone with a musical voice who uses a variety of inflection? You can train your ear to detect these characteristics just by paying attention. That makes you more apt to identify someone’s bad vocal habit, and more likely to catch yourself if you start using it.
Another way to keep your vocal habits on the straight and narrow is to be deliberate when you speak. For example, don’t rush! Talking fast puts out the welcome mat for Valspeak to drop in. Talk at a normal pace and be mindful of using proper diction. The more you practice good speech habits, the less chance a vocal virus has of sneaking up on you.
Finally, if someone tells you that you’re talking a certain way, believe her. A friend might say to you, “Oh, that’s so cute. You sound like a Valley Girl.” This may be a lighthearted way of cautioning you to brush up on your adult speech habits. Even if your friend does think it’s cute, the practice is detrimental to your career.
Research shows that how you say something affects a listener far more than what you actually say. To gain and maintain trust, respect, and credibility in your paralegal career, I invite you to embrace your true voice and stay true to it.
Links to some examples of these vocal viruses:
Gretchen Havens teaches Introduction to Speech Communication at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. Through CALS, she also conducts workshops for paralegals seeking to improve their communication skills in the workplace. She has taught “Presenting Yourself” for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice University, served as a private voiceover coach, and taught advertising courses for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice and the Women’s Institute of Houston.