Professor: Vocal fry not merely a sign of ‘ditziness’

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Listen to examples of vocal fry and learn more about the speech pattern in the video at the end of the story. Graphic by Ryan Corrall

With less than a month left, Chico State seniors are preparing for that big leap into the “real world.” When it comes to the big interview, a senior might dress sharp, style their hair and rehearse the talking points, but they may be forgetting about one crucial thing: their voice.

Without even realizing it, many college graduates will drop into a guttural, rattling voice while interviewing for their dream job. The phenomenon is called vocal fry. It is also known as glottalization, pulse phonation or ‘‘creaky voice.” It happens when the vocal folds vibrate intermittently and irregularly in the larynx (i.e., vocal cords). The effect is a world-weary tonal quality that is thought to be a way of appearing relaxed and collected, but is known for coming across as uncertain, awkward and even annoying.

Pop culture is full of celebrities who are known for speaking in this voice: Kim Kardashian, Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry, to name a few. Over the past five years the throaty, growly voice has been scrutinized more and more. Some have called it a vocal disorder and even an epidemic. An article in Time magazine cited a recent study by Plos One that said, “American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions.”

Sara Trechter, professor of linguistics, said that vocal fry has been perceived as a sign of “ditziness” or powerlessness, but its uses often vary.

“It has a long tradition in English of being all kinds of things,” she said. “A lot of people who use vocal fry are professionals.”

But it is not just women who use vocal fry. Men do it just as frequently. Some examples are Tom Cruise, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. Vocal fry has only come under scrutiny recently and largely due to its prevalent use among college-aged women. It wasn’t until about the last 10 years that people started associating vocal fry with young women’s speech.

“And typically when things, correctly or not, get associated with young women, they’re often times disparaged,” Trechter said.

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Sara Trechter, a linguistics professor, said vocal fry has various uses. Photo credit: Ryan Corrall

Trechter maintains that young women should not be pressured out of its use simply because society disapproves. The vocal phenomenon can be viewed as an evolution of the English language, she proposes.

Whether the negative view of vocal fry is a sign of patriarchal oppression, or more simply distaste for its sound, users of vocal fry would benefit from knowing that they are using it and how it may be perceived.

“I have started thinking of voice almost as the way I think about outfits. If I’m going for a job interview I’m going to wear a different outfit than when I’m out with my friends,” said journalist Jessica Grose in an NPR interview about vocal fry.

Approaching a job interview, seniors can imagine their vocal pattern sending similar signals as their clothing choices. A casual speech pattern may send the same signal as casual dress.

Some employers may find vocal fry to be a casual way of speaking, so it helps to consider not only what you are saying but the message that a vocal tone is sending.

Eric Couderc McGuire and Ryan Corrall can be reached at [email protected] or @theorion_news on Twitter.