What Does Power Sound Like?

In fourth grade, I auditioned for my elementary school chorus. I love to sing—but it’s not, let’s say, one of my more celebrated talents. So I’m standing next to an upright piano in our school auditorium-slash-gym-slash-cafeteria and singing along to my music teacher playing the accompaniment. I belt out what I imagine to be the melody, full of confidence in my big, bellowing contralto voice.  

When I’m done, the music teacher asks me to try singing the piece again—but without dropping it down an octave. She played a few notes as they were meant to be sung. And I can very distinctly remember telling her that when I sing in that register, it feels like I’m a squeaky mouse. I was convinced that I just didn’t have the same vocal range as other girls.

I decided that day that singing in public wasn’t for me. Nobody told me that, nobody even insinuated that. It was more an act of rebellion. I had other fish to fry, musically speaking.

I decided to take my big, low voice and go home.

Fast forward 8 years, and I’m at my entrance audition for college. Part of being accepted to the music department required establishing a sort of baseline for musical well-roundedness, which could then be used to properly place one in classes. At 17, musical well-roundedness was my middle name: Tara “Musical-Wellroundedness” Seefeldt. Music theory? No problem. Sight read a piano piece? Piece of cake. Capable of playing anything you can blow into? Sure thing. But… I also had to sing.

Again, I explained to our department chair, who was also a distinguished vocalist, that my voice is very low. On a good day, I might be able to hit the C above middle-C. He wasn’t going to take any of my crap, though. He smiled and said, “let’s just see.” He started me down in the range I was comfortable in and then proceeded to go higher and higher until I was well about that C above middle-C. I think I ended up singing the G or A above that. 

I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you! He merely gave me a knowing grin and told me he was pleased to have me in the program.

The truth is that I do have a solid contralto voice. 

 And, that I can sing higher than I thought I could. Or, at least, I could then.

My voice is a critical part of my identity.

I had assumed, even at 9 or 10 years old, that that was how my body produced sound. And I was proud of it. But why was I proud of it?

Well, I was proud of it because it made me “not like other girls.” You know, that old chestnut.

To acknowledge that my voice extended into a higher range was to acknowledge my femaleness. To acknowledge what I already perceived as a sort of fragility. A lack of power.

This is the sixth installment of our Self-Help, LLC series. This piece is all about voices—which might seem a strange topic for a series exploring the business and politics of self-help. But how we use our voices is a critical component of how we exercise power—or don’t.

After all, there’s a very good reason that figurative phrases like “find your voice” or “own your voice” are integral to the grammar of self-help. We often think of “voice” in those phrases as meaning your opinion, your values, or your desire. But at the root of those phrases is the literal, physical imperative to use our vocal instruments to make our way in the world.

It’s worth noting that vocal speech isn’t the only way to make yourself heard, of course. Sign language equips deaf people with the expressiveness and artistry we associate with speaking voices. Augmented and alternative communication devices make it possible for people who have lost or never had the ability to speak to own their voices, too. The writer Alice Wong recently wrote of her experience with losing the ability to make vocal speech. She’s currently communicating with an AAC, which poses many challenges when communicating with non-disabled people. However, she writes, “I can still grin devilishly, roll my eyes sarcastically, and my personal favorite, give the middle finger.”

So while we are talking about speaking voices we use in today’s installment, we’re also talking about power, access, and who “deserves” to be heard. And those are topics that impact all of us.

1.

The Voice of Authority

One of the things I’ve always loved about my voice is the way the tone and timbre convey authority. I can make something sound true just by saying it. I can make a product, an idea, or a guest bio sound impressive. But why? Why do the lower pitch and steady phrasing of my speaking voice make people want to listen to me? 

Samara Bay, the author of Permission to Speak, told me that “lower voices equal power.” It’s not because a lower voice is objectively more powerful or authoritative, of course. It’s that the people who have traditionally held power in our culture speak in a lower pitch. Samara explained that, at some point in high school, she learned that if she spoke a little lower pitch, “I seem a lot more like I’m in on the joke. Like no one’s going to mess with me.”

Voice, as a medium of communication, conveys a certain character. We often affect slight shifts in our speech to communicate something specific: empathy, pain, status, power, etc. And sometimes, we take on wholly new voices to play a specific role. And that is exactly what Samara’s day job is all about. Samara is a Hollywood dialect coach who’s worked on blockbuster hits like Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy. But she also works with leaders, politicians, and executives to help them use their voices to influence the world for the better. 

“I get to think about the minutia of vowels and consonants, and the musicality of thought out loud,” she told me. She coaches people on using their breath, how they can shape the tone of their voices, and how to affect their pitch. But that’s only part of her job—whether she’s working with Gal Gadot or the executive director of a non-profit. She explained that if something is going “wrong” with our voices, there’s a reason. “It usually has to do with old stories,” Samara said. We internalize stories about tone (e.g., “she’s shrill”), emotion (e.g., “she’s angry”), and pitch (e.g. “he sounds like a girl”). Mentors might tell us that we use up-speak too much or that we have vocal fry. We might have nasty comments in our podcast reviews or get a patronizing note on a performance review.  

Samara told me that a common response to these stories is what she calls vocal hiding. People will affect a neutral, almost monotone, voice in order to sound more like the people who tend to be in charge. As she looked back on her career and her own relationship with her voice, she realized:

“I realized that the connective tissue is: How do we perform ourselves? And how is our voice part of that performance? And then, how do people treat us because of that performance? And what if we make an adjustment?”

2.

Bad Usage

Before Samara coached actors who star in blockbuster movies, she was a student in an MFA acting program. One day, when she was 24, she completely lost her voice. “It would be back lightly in the morning, but it was painful,” she told me. She’d push through the pain a bit to get her coffee order out—but by lunch, she’d be unintelligible.

Samara knew she wasn’t sick. Something else was going on. When she finally made her way to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, the diagnosis was clear: vocal nodules. Samara’s vocal nodules were two angry red blisters on her vocal cords—and they were “a telltale sign” that she’d speaking outside of her optimum pitch. Unsurprisingly, Samara had been using a pitch that was just a tiny bit too low for her. “It was just a habit I’d picked up, and it didn’t affect me until it did,” she reflected. 

With her newly acquired diagnosis, Samara went back to acting class later that day. When she entered the room, everyone turned to look at her, waiting for the news. “The acting teacher, who I really respected, stopped class. And he asked, ‘So what’s the diagnosis? And I said, painfully, ‘vocal nodules.’”

His response? “Huh, just as I thought—bad usage.”

Samara went from having a painful throat condition to being directly responsible for her own misery with a single thoughtless remark.

This is the ultimate double-bind in the grammar of self-help. You learn how the system works and behave accordingly. Then, when things don’t go the way you were told they would, you don’t get want you want… you get blamed for doing exactly what you thought you were supposed to do.

Samara learned that speaking just a tiny bit lower helped her to sound more powerful, more authoritative. And that worked for her, as she said, until it didn’t. When she received the diagnosis, her teacher blamed her for having literally hurt herself. 

Samara dropped out of the play she was rehearsing for to heal and took a break from singing lessons. She went back to her parents’ house and consulted a speech pathologist. One of the first things the speech pathologist did was to record Samara’s voice speaking in her optimum pitch. “I realized, when listening, that it’s not that different on the outside. It’s almost negligible. But on the inside, it triggered all these stories,” she recalled. 

3.

Optimum Pitch

Speaking of women talking below their optimum pitch, we should pause for a moment and talk about the infamous Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes was convicted on 4 counts of defrauding investors in her company, Theranos, on January 3, 2022. If you don’t know the story, essentially, Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 with a dream to build a machine that would allow anyone to test a single drop of their blood for numerous disease markers. Holmes used the concept and an ever-expanding personal network to raise almost half a billion dollars in venture capital between 2004 and 2014. At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and Holmes herself was named by Forbes as the world’s youngest and wealthiest self-made woman billionaire. 

Unfortunately, the device Holmes envisioned, raised money on, and signed contracts with major chains for was deemed a bioengineering impossibility.

Hence, the fraud charges.

If you know one thing about Elizabeth Holmes, it’s that she profited on a concept that flat-out didn’t work. If you know two things, the second is that she has a low voice.

I don’t think anyone really knows the story with Holmes’ voice other than Holmes herself. But whether her voice was naturally low-pitched or purposefully affected or some combination of both, her voice was an asset in the world of venture capital and biotechnology, where women have a notoriously difficult time raising money to fund their ventures.

Holmes seems to be an over-the-top example of how women learn to lower their voices to succeed. But it’s a phenomenon that many women and queer people have experience with.

Samara had learned to speak in a lower pitch, and it wasn’t sustainable for her physically. Of course, at the time, the greater political implications of this problem weren’t really on her radar. She just wanted to know whether she could continue with school and whether she would learn to talk again. And she felt exposed. “Voice stuff is really vulnerable. There is this sense that voice is party of our identity. It’s our way to communicate with the world,” she told me.

Many people feel exposed when they’re called on to use their voices to say what matters to them. It’s a prime time for vocal hiding. Something “we’ve had a lifetime of experience” with. Elizabeth Holmes used her voice to say what mattered to her in a way people would take her seriously. If her voice was affected or exaggerated, it says more about the people listening to her than it does about her.

4.

Public Square

The legacy of hiding our voices extends well beyond our lifetimes. In Ancient Greece and Rome, it was the law.

Mary Beard, a scholar of Roman history, wrote a short book on the relationship between women and power over time. A big theme of the book is simply the fact that, in many societies around the world,  women were not allowed to speak in public until regularly recently. She writes:

“…public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. … to become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness.”

So not only were women not allowed to speak—public speech was a critical part of masculine identity. 

In order to speak publicly and be taken seriously, women have used various tactics but chief among them is affecting a lower-pitched voice. But Beard continues:

“…all tactics of that type tend to leave women still feeling on the outside, impersonators of rhetorical roles that they don’t feel they own. Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.”

Now, it’s relatively easy, and probably pretty familiar, to analyze voice and power through a male-female binary. But it’s not that simple.

We can’t reduce vocal presentation to “men sound like this” and “women sound like that.”

Instead, there is a cultural ideal that everyone ends up judged against. If we don’t naturally match that ideal, we learn that our job is to overcome our differences and speak more like the ideal. This imperative to “overcome” is a familiar tool deployed by systems of oppression—which is a theme I explore in my book

Our culture loves stories of overcoming—Jesus heals the blind man, science makes it possible for the deaf child to hear, the poor immigrant goes to college, the pioneer settles the wild west. 

Most often, these stories of overcoming are really stories about the need to conform. These stories urge us to see a narrow representation of the human experience as “normal” and “ideal.” The protagonists shed their differences to become more like the venerated standard. 

For me, that means adjusting my behavior so that I stim less when I’m around non-autistic people. Or pretending I’m fine when multiple conversations, music, or construction noise is completely overwhelming my ability to function. It can also mean performing small talk and putting on a smile when I’m depressed or emotionally exhausted.

Black children are often taught “standard” American English rather than learning about African American Vernacular English because it’s not “professional.” AAVE isn’t what “success” sounds like because it’s not what white people sound like. Upwardly mobile young people in the South often learn to soften their accents. Sometimes they’re coached to soften their accents; other times, they pick up on the differences and vow to make the change themselves. One young man told Dolly Parton’s America:

“I willingly changed [my accent]. As a kid, in addition to being based here, my dad was in the military. We moved around. So I got to hear a bunch of different accents and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m different. I want to sound like them.”

Transgender people face all manner of challenges when it comes to their voices. Mackenzie Dunham, a therapist who specializes in working with transgender kids and their parents, as well as the host of Camp Wild Heart, recalls:

“I’ve known kids who have completely stopped talking because of their voice.  I’ve also known kids, primarily trans girls who simply won’t talk in public places or in school. They’ll ditch choir or theater, things that they used to love,  all to avoid having to hear their own voice.

Many kids feel that their voice is a huge giveaway of their transness, which isn’t a big deal if you don’t care about being trans. But many kids do care about being trans or being seen as trans. They care because of their own internalized trans transphobia but also because they know that people will treat them differently based on their perception of their gender identity.”

And This American Life recently did a beautiful story on one man’s vocal transition. Sandy Allen put off starting testosterone and making a more profound shift into his masculine identity because he was worried about losing his singing voice—a bright mezzo-soprano that he’d put a lot of hard work into:

“Maybe I thought the universe would punish me, you know? Maybe I thought that, hey, if I do this ‘monstrous,’ thing and start testosterone and ruin this beautiful voice that I spent so much of my childhood building, then the punishment I’ll receive is that I won’t ever feel the pleasure of singing again.”

Each time we “overcome” one of our differences to become more like what’s considered “normal,” we get incrementally closer to what power looks like or sounds like. But at the same time, we alienate an important part of our identities and have to put in extra work to do so. And, to make matters worse, no matter how far we inch toward “normal”—toward what power looks like or sounds like–we can’t ever quite get there. At least not for long.

As Beard put it, we become “impersonators of rhetorical roles” that we’ll never own. 

5.

Different Voices

The human voice is an incredibly complex instrument—capable of producing a wide range of pitch, tempo, timbre, and volume. Yet, what seems to constitute a “good voice” is one that uses very few of those potential variations.

We don’t want a voice that’s shaky—because people will think we’re nervous or overly emotional. We don’t want a voice that’s too soft—or people will think we’re weak. We don’t want a voice that’s too loud or forceful—because people will interpret that as aggressive, angry, or shrill, depending on your visual presentation.

As a podcaster and a producer, this is something I think about a lot. I remember someone once telling me that they didn’t want to invite a potential guest on their show because they “didn’t have a voice for podcasting.”

I mean, if you have a voice, you can use it for podcasting. So what does that even mean? 

Of course, I know exactly what that person meant. The voices that should be heard “on air” are voices that emulate a cultural ideal of proper speech. They’re clear, warm, lower-pitched, and unemotional. There are no “ums” or “likes,” no upspeak or vocal fry. In other words, they sound more like Howard Stern or Peter Jennings than they do Sarah Vowell or B.A. Parker or Charlie Jane Andrews. The voices that deserve to be heard don’t sound like conversationalists—they sound like broadcasters. They convey authority rather than invite dialogue.

Both Sean and I have become really adamant about making space for voice diversity at YellowHouse.Media. That means that we won’t edit someone’s speech to make them sound “more professional” or “smarter”—after all, that really means making someone sound whiter and more masculine. That was a very common request when we were getting started. Sure, we take out ums and likes when they start to get in the way of what’s being said or when someone’s lost their train of thought—but most of the time, we leave them in. We want to amplify conversationalists; people who think on their feet; people who have something to say even when it’s difficult or simply unpolished. We coach podcast hosts on how to write more like the way they speak so that if they’re reading a script, it sounds more like they’re talking and less like written text.

I’ll tell you: it’s hard to convince someone that their ums and likes, giggles and even cross-talk serve an important communication function. We’re so accustomed to prioritizing white male comfort over our natural ways of speaking that not doing so feels risky. And in many ways it is.

Several years ago, This American Life did a piece on the complaints the show receives about the women who work on the show. Legendary host Ira Glass—you can find multiple articles about Glass’s voice, none of which are positive—read a listen email:

“Listen, I know there’s pressure to hire females in particular young females just outta college, and besides, they’re likely to work for less money, but do you have to choose the most irritating voices in the English speaking world? I mean, are you forced to? Or maybe, as I imagine, NPR runs national contests looking for them.”

Glass recalls that the emails the show receives about women’s voices are some of the “angriest emails we ever get. They call these women’s voices ‘unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention to, so severe as to cause discomfort, can’t stand the pain, distracting me, disgusting, could not get over how annoyed I was, I am so appalled, detracts from the credibility of the journalist, degrades the value of the reportage, it’s a choice, very unprofessional.’”

This is misogyny. It’s a blatant attempt to shame women into silence. Misogyny isn’t only perpetrated against women—trans misogyny and misogynoir exert pressure on trans people, Black people, and people of color to silence themselves, too. And, as with Alice Wong, disabled people face policing of their voices. If marginalized people are silenced, they can’t speak out about their right to live unmolested by dominant culture. 

Men are not the only people who attempt to silence and shame people whose voices don’t fit that evening newscaster standard. Women silence people, too. Men are angry that women haven’t worked harder to sound more like men. Women are angry, often, because they themselves had to put in the time to sound more like men, or more like how men want them to sound.

Again, we see the double-bind inherent to so much conventional wisdom in self-help.

6.

Caring Out Loud

Have you ever spoken with someone who apologized for sounding emotional? Sounding nervous? Sounding frustrated? I certainly have. But I gotta tell you something: as an interviewer, there are few things better than asking a question that gets an emotional response. I want to hear the quiver, the words that have never been spoken aloud, the deep belly breathing that backs up a story someone feels deeply about. No apologies necessary. I want to hear it all.

Samara calls this “caring out loud.” She says that the moments that stick with us—“the viral moments when people grab a microphone and say something true”—are when voices express more than just words. They’re the moments when a voice reveals the pain, joy, risk, or worry that comes from having a real stake in what’s being said. Of course, most of us figure out how to not reveal what we care about out loud. “It’s really vulnerable to say, ‘this is what matters to me,’” explained Samara. “We worry we inconvenience people because we might get emotional.” Others praise us for keeping our cool or affecting professional detachment. That reinforces the behavior and creates patterns that are difficult to break.

Samara made it clear that, for all of the internal damage hiding our voices and our care can do, creating that emotional detachment can also keep us safe. We learn to recognize situations in which others have power over us and modulate our voices (if we speak at all) to appear nice, non-threatening, respectful. For some, the worst that can happen when our voices don’t sound professional or sound like they “should,” is an angry email pops into the inbox. For others, adjusting their voices might be a way to avoid potential physical or verbal abuse. And of course, there’s a whole world of experiences in between those two poles. 

I asked Samara how she thinks about when to embrace our more natural ways of speaking and when we might actually want to make adjustments to make others more comfortable and make ourselves less threatening or different. She told me that she thinks of the way we speak in two different categories: the way we speak when we feel we have something to prove to the person we’re talking to, and the way we speak when we don’t. “Think about how you show up with your absolutely favorite people who just get you, and then think about what the standards are for professionalism. And if those two things are at odds, perhaps professionalism is what needs to shift a bit.” That doesn’t solve the larger problem overnight—but awareness can turn rote behaviors into conscious choices, and that is a powerful move.

What does power sound like to you?

“I think at the heart of everyone’s issues with voice is: how do I show up authentically versus how do I get taken seriously?” Samara told me. From Wittgenstein to Derrida, contemporary philosophers have theorized about how language forms meaning and identity. Language is understood as dialogue—an agreement about what we mean when we say words like “voice” or “power.” When the preferred language doesn’t allow for one to show up authentically and be taken seriously, it creates distress. And distress is the modern condition for so many people who have something to say. “That has left so many people feeling disconnected from their own voice and from what power sounds like,” Samara reflected.

“I’ll say one other extremely simple thing: How do you have fun?” Samara added. What happens to your voice when you allow yourself a squirrelly mischievousness, even if the subject matter is grave? “That is where the power actually lies.”

By Tara McMullin

Writer, Podcaster, Producer. Founder of What Works.

Oct 13, 2022

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