Why we sometimes speak very high – and sometimes very low

Bridget Jones and her lover meet in the hallway of the publishing house where they both work. She has made up her mind not to get involved with him anymore because he treats her disrespectfully. And yet she still has feelings for him. He leans over and asks what she’s up to that evening. “Nothing yet,” she whispers in a high voice. The main character in “Chocolate for Breakfast” usually speaks in a deeper voice. Is the scene exaggerated?

Research shows: no, it is by no means so. The voice reacts to situations and feelings. Even role models deeply ingrained in our society are changing the pitch at which people speak.

One psychological study from 2018 examined how men and women change their voice on dates. The participants changed the pitch of their voices significantly, but in a different way than expected. Psychologist Katarzyna Pisanski and her team observed 30 people at a real speed dating event. The dates were exclusively heterosexual, i.e. only between men and women. After each date, the participants could indicate whether they wanted to meet the person a second time.

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Basically, they just changed their voice when talking to a person they wanted to see again. Women lowered or raised their speaking voice depending on how popular their dating partner was with other women. They spoke in a higher voice when they met a man who was unpopular with other participants. On the other hand, they spoke in a deeper voice when they were dating a man who was universally desired.

Above all, the study shows how complicated the voice is and how sensitive speakers react to their environment. All people flirt in different tones than they would normally speak. Exactly how much, however, depends on the person you are talking to and how much other people want you.

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Bridget Jones speaks in a high voice from experience

Voice coach Christine Kugler is very familiar with such changes in pitch. Why does this happen when flirting? “People change their voices toward people they find attractive based on established patterns, listening habits, and an awareness of what the other person is likely to find attractive,” says Kugler. For example, if people speak in a breathy voice and realize that others find it sexy, they will continue to do so when flirting. But also how presenters and actors speak influences how the majority of people speak. The Kardashians, for example, speak in a raspy voice, and some fans of the series imitate the pitch. People usually change their pitch unconsciously.

For example, a woman speaks in a particularly deep voice on a date because she has noticed that many people find it attractive. Also, there may be actresses who speak at a similar pitch, and she thinks her interlocutor likes the pitch. But her feelings towards her date also influence her voice.

Are male and female brains different?

”There is no such thing as a typical female or male brain”

Men can park better and women can express themselves better because their brains are wired differently from birth – that’s the cliché. To date, this has not been scientifically proven. Gender researcher Anelis Kaiser Trujillo explains why it is better to imagine the brain as a mosaic.

“Inner Feeling Thermometer”

This is because the vocal cords, larynx and mouth are sensitive to emotions. “The voice is often like a thermometer for your inner state,” says Kugler. That’s why she talks a lot about personal issues with her clients. “If you want to change how he or she speaks, you have to change your thoughts and emotions,” she explains. For example, tension prevents the vocal cords from vibrating well and producing a sustainable sound. Excitement causes many people’s voices to skyrocket. Relaxed voices, on the other hand, sound deeper and fuller.

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In addition to spontaneous feelings, role models also affect the voice. For example, many people speak in a completely different tone at work than at home. “At work, they may need to assert themselves and speak louder, while at home they can relax and lower their voices,” says voice coach Kugler. The louder voice then corresponds more closely to the role that people play in the job.

Another example is parents who speak particularly high with their young children. In addition, they repeat individual words very often and put extreme stress on the syllables. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute discovered that babies and toddlers respond particularly well to such speaking voices. By subconsciously tuning their voices to their children, parents support their language development. Experts call such phenomena “attribution-based speaking”. Speakers adapt their voice to their own role and situation.

The bonus of the deep voice

The roles of men and women have changed drastically in the last 100 years. This has apparently also changed female voices, as the Leipzig voice researcher Michael Fuchs and his team found out in 2018. Until then, medical textbooks stated that women’s voices were on average an octave higher than men’s voices. Accordingly, women’s voices have an average frequency of 220 hertz and men’s voices of 110. However, the women examined by Fuchs spoke on average with a much deeper voice than textbooks state. “The distance between men’s voices and women’s voices has practically halved,” explains the researcher. First, the scientists believed in a measurement error, then in an increase in smokers. Tobacco smoke causes chronic inflammation that leads to a deeper voice. But “guilt” was the emancipation.

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Women still have the same vocal range as they did some time ago. So an average 30-year-old can still speak as high and low as their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother could. But women use their voice differently than they did several decades ago. In certain roles, they have an advantage from speaking more deeply. According to Fuchs, the reasons for this go far back into human history.

Why some people don’t have access to their emotions

Sadness, joy, pride – people go through many different feelings during the day. Not everyone perceives them or can communicate them.

The “Iron Lady” consciously trained her voice

A deep voice evolutionarily indicates a large and strong body. That’s why even today, most people find low voices more trustworthy. For example, listeners are more likely to believe that what is said is correct when speakers have a deep voice. So women speak with a deeper voice because they realize that they are then taken more seriously by those around them. However, Fuchs and his team were only able to identify the deeper speaking voices in women from the age of 25. The reason for this is that from this point on they often take on tasks in which they have to use their voice to guide them. These can be, for example, professions in which there is a lot of talking, or management positions. The vast majority of women subconsciously lower their voices, just as people unconsciously react to emotions and conversation partners.

But some also want to consciously use the bonus of the deep voice for themselves. Probably the most prominent example is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After a party colleague complained about her voice, which was still shrill at the time, she took speech lessons and thus developed her typical authoritarian tone.

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