Vocal Fry May Hurt Women's Job Prospects

In a new study, people said they were less likely to hire speakers who used the creaky-voiced affectation, particularly when they were female.

Vocal fry is the intereeeeeestaaaaaaang phenomenon that's grown increasingly common among young women ever since Ke$ha woke up in the morning feeling like P-Diddy. The effect is produced by slowly fluttering the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register. A 2011 study found that two-thirds of a small sample of college women were doing it. 

Here's Zooey Deschanel frying quirkily:

And here's a waveform of how it looks, with the "creakiness" circled:

Waveforms for audio sample of a normal voice (left) and vocal fry (right) (PLOS)

American youths seem to think vocal fry is no problem. A 2010 study found that 175 undergrads had a generally favorable impression of one creak-speaking woman. But while the speech style might be popular among college students, it could also be hurting their job prospects, according to a new study published this week in the online journal PLOS.

Researchers at the University of Miami and Duke University asked seven male and seven female young people to say the phrase “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” in both a normal tone and in vocal fry. Then, 800 men and women of a variety of ages were invited through an online survey to listen to the samples and select which speaker (normal or fry) they found to be more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and appealing as a job candidate.

Here's a sample of some of the audio clips, but you can find the rest at the PLOS site.

For each trait, the listeners preferred the normal voice to the fry voice for both the male and female speakers. They were less likely to say they'd want to hire the person with the fry voice, mostly because they found them to be less trustworthy. When making hiring judgments, people preferred a normal voice 86 percent of the time for female speakers and 83 percent of the time for male speakers. Women using fry were viewed more negatively than men doing so, and the negative perceptions were stronger when the listener was also a woman. 

One reason for this, the researchers suggest, is that women using vocal fry speak at lower pitch, but people tend to prefer voices that are at the average pitch and timbre for the speaker's gender. Romantically, women tend to prefer men with deep voices and men tend to like women with higher-pitched ones.

With vocal fry, meanwhile, voices drop far below what would be a "typical" male or female pitch—and the women may be disproportionately penalized because they're expected to have higher voices to begin with.

For women, this presents a conundrum, because people with deeper voices are also perceived as more dominant and are more successful at obtaining leadership roles. So while women might consider dropping their voices to seem stronger, it appears they shouldn't let them dip too far, lest they enter the treacherous vocal fry range. Interestingly, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was considered by some to be a paragon of fry.

"Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions," the study authors write, "Particularly when being interviewed by another woman."

Just another thing to worry about before your next job interview, ladies.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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