Imperfect pitch

Until last week I had never heard of Elizabeth Holmes, the 35-year old former CEO of a company called Theranos which claimed to have developed a revolutionary new blood-testing technology. Investors poured in money, and by 2015 Holmes was America’s youngest self-made female billionaire. But then it all unravelled: the technology was revealed to be a fraud. Last year Holmes and her partner were charged with a number of criminal offences. But what brought her to my attention was a different kind of deception: she’s been accused of faking her much-remarked on ‘deep baritone voice’.

Holmes’s speaking voice was one of her trademarks, mentioned regularly in articles and profiles, and ‘baritone’ became the standard description. Parenthetically, I have to say I don’t find that term particularly apt. Is her voice-pitch noticeably low for a woman of her age? Yes. Does she sound like what ‘baritone’ implies—a man? In my opinion, no. (If you want to make up your own mind, here’s a clip of her being interviewed in 2015). But when the shit hit the fan, it began to be suggested that her baritone was as dodgy as her blood-testing device. Former employees reported that her real voice was much higher, and that sometimes, especially when she’d been drinking, she couldn’t keep up the pretence.

Some commentators seemed to find this vocal deception almost more culpable than the crimes she’d been indicted for. One popular view presented the adoption of a fake voice as a clear sign that Holmes was ‘sociopathic’. Others saw it more as a sign that she was insecure and narcissistic: as Katie Heaney commented in a piece entitled ‘What Kind of Person Fakes Their Voice?’

faking one’s voice is just weird, and embarrassing, in much the same way that bad toupees are: they place one’s bodily insecurities center stage.

But a lot of this commentary is linguistically naïve, overlooking the point that we all ‘fake’–or in less loaded language, modify–our voices for different purposes and occasions. Though many of the adjustments we make are automatic and unconscious (a matter of what social psychologists call ‘accommodation’, or what sociolinguists call ‘style shifting’), some are more deliberate, and may involve consciously controlling our pitch, loudness and voice quality. There are jobs that require this kind of performance (working in a call centre, for instance, may demand the kind of warm, smiley customer service voice I talked about in a recent post), and social situations where it’s conventional to adopt a ‘special’ voice (when playing with a baby, for example, or flirting with a potential lover). Of course, we don’t think of this as ‘faking’, which implies the intention to deceive; but it illustrates the point that people don’t have only one ‘authentic’ way of speaking.

In a case like Elizabeth Holmes’s, though, there’s another possible answer to the question ‘why would she fake a deeper voice’. Women in business, politics and the professions are constantly told that their high-pitched voices are a problem, undermining their authority and making them sound like silly girls. They are explicitly encouraged, and sometimes coached (as Margaret Thatcher famously was) to lower their pitch so that people will take them more seriously. I’m sure Holmes was familiar with this advice–if you’re a woman in business it’s pretty difficult to avoid. But as her story suggests, actually taking it can have a downside.

That was the message of the Financial Times article which belatedly introduced me to Holmes’s story. Titled ‘Pitch Perfect: How To Speak With Authority’, it proposed that ‘women can change the way they sound for more impact, but authenticity is crucial’. Ah yes, the classic mixed message so beloved of advice-givers everywhere: change yourself while also staying true to yourself. How are women supposed to balance these contradictory demands?

deeperLater we hear from an expert, Casey Klofstad, who says that women are ‘trapped’ (his word) between a rock and a hard place. Klofstad has studied the relationship between authority and voice-pitch: readers with long memories might remember me describing some research he was involved in, where judges were presented with two recordings of men or women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’ and then asked which one they’d be inclined to vote for. They showed a clear preference for the speaker whose voice was lower. The conclusion might seem to be obvious: ambitious women should adjust their voice-pitch downwards. But Klofstad explains that it’s not quite that simple. It’s true that ‘lower is better for obtaining positions of leadership’. But at the same time,

the human ear likes averageness, prototypy ‘normal sounding’ voices… We do not like people deviating from their natural voice, particularly in a way that is ‘sex atypical’ (meaning higher for men, lower for women).

How can women extricate themselves from this double bind? Klofstad doesn’t say: his use of the word ‘trapped’ suggests he doesn’t think there’s an easy answer. But there is no scientific finding so unpromising that the advice industry can’t turn it into a business opportunity. The article goes on to inform us that

Research like Prof Klofstad’s has informed a new approach to voice coaching. …Most coaches are now focused on helping people sound like themselves.

Sorry, what? Don’t people who go to voice coaches already ‘sound like themselves’?

OK, you’re right, I’m being disingenuous: I’m pretty sure I know what the writer means by ‘helping people sound like themselves’, because the idea is familiar from another branch of the woman-fixing industry. I made this analogy four years ago, when I published my first post on this general theme:

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech.

‘Helping people to sound like themselves’ is the vocal equivalent of what the beauty industry calls ‘the natural look’, where you apply cosmetics with the aim of making people think you’re not wearing make-up, you’ve just got naturally radiant skin, dewy lips, long dark lashes, etc. Similarly, a voice coach quoted in the FT piece says she doesn’t set out to lower her female clients’ pitch; rather she concentrates on ‘giv[ing] people the confidence to find their natural voice’. By happy coincidence, a woman’s ‘natural voice’ usually turns out to be ‘a couple of notes lower’ than the one she came in with.

But having apparently squared the circle—’see, you can change your voice and be even more authentically yourself than you were before!’—the article takes a further confusing turn. It introduces us to two women who have managed to succeed in their fields (respectively, law and business) despite having not only female voices but also working-class accents. These women say they haven’t been disadvantaged—on the contrary, in fact, they feel they’ve benefited—by sounding ‘down to earth’, ‘accessible’ and ‘authentic’. The writer presents this as a sign of the times: ‘the diversification of business leadership’, she observes, ‘has shifted our idea of what a leader’s voice should sound like’.

Really? When did that happen? Not, I assume in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrill’ voice was a constant reference point in commentary on her supposed unfitness for office. And not in 2018, when the BBC’s decision to let a woman, Vicki Sparks, take charge of the commentary during a men’s World Cup football match prompted a deluge of complaints about her ‘squeaky’, ‘screeching’, ‘shallow’, ‘shrill’, ‘strident’ and ‘annoying’ voice. If we’re so cool with female-voiced authority figures, why are the voice coaches and the advice-givers still in business? Why do newspapers still publish articles like this one?

The last person the article quotes is the podcaster Helen Zaltzman, whose assessment of the current situation is more cautious. Women in her line of work, she notes, have to deal with endless insulting remarks about their voices. Yet Zaltzman is optimistic: the trolls and grumblers, she says, need to wake up and realize that ‘in 30 years’ time, that’s how power will sound’.

I hope she’s right (though it’s unlikely I’ll be around in 2049 to assess the accuracy of her prediction), but to be honest I have my doubts. big voiceNot because I believe what I was taught as a student (that power will always sound male: men’s deeper voices, like lions’ manes, are natural signals of their dominance); more because I think most of the judgments made on women’s voices have very little to do with what those voices actually sound like.

When people complain that a woman’s voice is ‘shrill’, for instance, there’s often no objective, acoustically measurable quality to which that descriptor corresponds. Hillary Clinton is a case in point: if one element of the meaning of ‘shrill’ is speaking at a higher than normal pitch, then Clinton’s voice is not shrill (as an acoustic analysis of her 2016 campaign speeches confirmed). What people mostly mean when they describe a woman as ‘shrill’ is ‘I don’t like her’, or ‘I don’t think this position should be occupied by a woman’. Criticizing the way she sounds is just a pretext for criticizing her—it’s like when racists complain that their neighbours are ‘loud’ or ‘rude’ when what they really mean is ‘not white’.

A similar argument could be made about Elizabeth Holmes’s fake baritone. I don’t know if it really is fake (when I first listened to her voice I didn’t think so–to me it doesn’t sound obviously forced), but in any case, its authenticity only seems to have become an issue after she was exposed as a fraud. Before that, her unusually deep tones were treated as a positive asset: they symbolized her status as an exception, a successful woman in the uber-male biotech industry. Once she had fallen from grace, however, those same deep tones, now reframed as ‘unnatural’, became a symbol of her dishonesty and amorality (‘she lied about everything—even her voice was a lie’). Her voice itself was never the point: the point was what it said, or could be made to say, about her.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should sympathise with Holmes. She clearly lied about more important things, and it’s those lies she’ll be punished for. But most commentary on women’s voices punishes women simply for being women. That’s why I’m so critical of articles like ‘Pitch Perfect’: they reinforce the belief that women have a language problem, when in reality it’s our culture that has a woman problem. And that’s something no amount of voice-coaching will ever fix.