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What Is Fry Vocal Fry? How Your Voice Affects Your Career

There is a lot of competition for jobs and for job advancement. Could your voice be holding your prospects back? What is vocal fry and how does it affect your life?

You might not be familiar with the name but you’ve certainly heard it. You might even do it. And if you are, it can be hurting you in the job market.

What Is A Vocal Fry?

A vocal fry is a low vibrational sound that can be heard in some people’s voices, commonly at the end of a sentence. There are three vocal registers. From highest to lowest they are, falsetto, modal, and fry. Modal is where most people naturally speak. It’s easier to understand by listening. There are several examples in this clip. If you think it’s gross to listen to, wait until you see it inside the body.

What Does It Convey?

That’s subjective. To some it conveys confidence and authority because it lowers the voice and a lower voice is generally considered a male trait associated with authority. To some it sounds bored and world weary. It’s a trait considered by many to be the preserve of the educated and upwardly mobile female urbanite. Some consider it nothing more than a fashion trend adapted by those lacking the very traits fry is meant to denote.

Who Started It?

Vocal fry is not a new phenomenon. A British linguist, Dr Crystal, found it as far back as 1964 in British men. It was a way of speaking thought to show “superior social standing.” It may go farther back than that though. Some experts point out actors like May West using it to convey sexiness and Vincent Price using it to convey menace.

Women though, are historically the spreaders of linguistic trends. Two linguists from the University of Helsinki studied 6,000 letters written between 1417 and 1681. Of the 14 changes studied, 11 of them were adapted by the female letter writers more quickly than their male counterparts.

Young women in particular are at the leading edge of linguistic trends and are half a generation ahead of men on average. Zoey Deschanel and the kardashian hookers are (dis)credited with making the fry as ubiquitous as it seems to be now.

It’s Not The First

I don’t listen to anything where I would have to hear the likes of a kardashian speak so I’ve never noticed the fry. What I have noticed is the quotative use of the word “like.” That use of it really irritates me, to the point of irrational anger.

I have no love for using it this way, “It’s like, crazy!” but I find that less irritating than this: “So I was like and then he was like, and then I was like,” when someone is recounting a conversation.

I have crossed the street to get away from someone talking that way in front of me on the sidewalk. I just want to scream, “Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!” First of all, most people don’t want to hear a verbatim rehash of some shitty conversation you had over brunch. On the off chance the brunch conversation contained information that needs to be conveyed at a later date to a third party, say it like this, “I said, then he said, so I responded.” Nearly as inane but much less irritating to listen to. If you are guilty of this, here is how to stop in Ten Easy Steps. Please, I implore you.

Upspeak is almost as bad. It’s when every sentence ends like a question? When it isn’t a question. Even when it is a question, there is no need for it. Your audience will know it’s a question because they are being asked something!

Say this sentence out loud to two different people, once with upspeak and once without. “Where would you like to go for dinner?” When you asked it without upspeak did the other person just stand there looking at you blankly? Or did they tell you where the wanted to go for dinner?

I listen to NPR in the morning and there was an interview with a conservationist. She ended every sentence with upspeak. I couldn’t bear it. I had to get out of the shower, trailing water and shut the radio off. She could have been imparting the meaning of life and I couldn’t have listened.

“You know” is another one. The most egregious over users of this one seem to be athletes. Back in the late 1990’s the Detroit Red Wings had a forward named Martin Lepointe. He said “you know” after nearly every sentence he uttered in interviews. Used to drive me nuts, I always muted him.

Is It Dangerous?

It doesn’t seem to be. Some people think it can damage the vocal cords or be “vocally fatiguing” but there are some languages that use fry including Danish and Vietnamese and those countries don’t seem to be suffering from an epidemics of vocal fatigue.

Is It Sexist?

Women in media, whether it’s radio, television or podcasts, seem to receive an inordinate amount of complaints about their voices compared to their male counter parts. I listen to the excellent podcast, Stuff You Should Know. It’s part of a whole series of podcasts.

Some hosts are male and some are female. During a recent episode on vocal fry one of the hosts, Josh, pointed out that in Itunes reviews, there are often complaints about the way female hosts speak but almost never similar complaints about the male hosts.

Ira Glass of This American Life has a fry and it doesn’t seem to have hurt him. Noam Chomsky does it too. But they’re men.

Naomi Wolf, long known as a feminist, told young women to stop using the fry because it was diminishing their power in an article for The Guardian. The SJW, Tumblr brand of feminists were furious. To them, it wasn’t a matter of how women speak, it was the white male, cisgendered patriarchy (as it always is with them) not wanting women to speak at all!

Well, maybe not quite. Or at least it’s not just men who are sexist about it. Penny Eckert, a linguist from Stanford, conducted a study to determine if people found vocal fry irritating as she herself did. She sampled 500 adults. Those over the age of 40 did indeed find it annoying. Those under 40 did not. They found it to sound “authoritative.” So it’s not just a gender that finds the fry annoying, it’s an age. Other studies have found that women judge those who fry more harshly than men do. But women judging one another more harshly than men is hardly new.

Is It Hurting Your Prospects?

PLOS ONE, a science journal, published research that found using fry may indeed hurt young women in the job market.  The study concluded, “Young aduVocal-Frylt female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.

The negative perceptions of women who use vocal fry are stronger when the listener is also a woman. Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman.”

So yes, it very well might be. Particularly if your interviewer is over 40 and a female. There are worse things you can do in an interview of course, show up late, wear a tube top, chew gum. But in a competitive market, any small thing can hurt you and the way you speak is a relatively easy thing to change.

How To Stop

The first thing you need to do is find out if you use fry. Ask your older, female friends. If you do, they have probably noticed and it’s probably annoying them. If no one wants to hurt your feelings, tape yourself speaking and listen for it. If you are using a fry and are not doing it on purpose, voice coaches recommend working on your breathing to eliminate it. Breath from lower down than most of us probably do, from your lower rib cage rather than higher up in your chest.

Breath through your entire sentence. As you near the end, especially if you tend to speak in run on sentences, you start to run out of breath and this can cause you to fry without meaning to.

This all might seem dumb or petty to you but people have probably been passed over in an interview or for a promotion for a lot less. And for some things they didn’t have control over and could not easily change. Fry is neither of those things. You can control it and you can easily change it. So remember, in your interview, no tube tops, no gum chewing, and no frying!

Inter-Article Image Photo Credit: “McDonald’s Restaurant, Miles City” by David Schott on Flickr

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