Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

What do you do if you don't like the sound of your own voice?

 A man speaks in to a microphone to demonstrators at a pro-police rally on June 27 in St Paul, Minnesota, US. Brandon Bell / Getty Images/ AFP
 A man speaks in to a microphone to demonstrators at a pro-police rally on June 27 in St Paul, Minnesota, US. Brandon Bell / Getty Images/ AFP

When I first heard a recording of my own voice at about age seven I was horrified. We had just got a cassette recorder and I kept rewinding and playing the recording, finding it hard to believe that the sound I was hearing was actually my voice. It seemed too high, too Liverpudlian, too embarrassing. This confrontation with vocal reality temporarily challenged my fragile self-concept: I was not who I thought I was.

Earlier this month, Twitter started testing voice tweets. For now the option is available only to select operating systems (iPhone/iPad) users and it allows recording up to 140 seconds of audio for each tweet. Given this new feature, it is worth considering what does it mean to not like the sound of our voice?

No longer a seven-year-old playing with a tape recorder, I now understand that the voice I hear when I speak and the voice I hear on recordings are indeed different. When we speak, the voice audible to us is distorted by bone and tissue, which tends to augment the lower-frequencies. And our recorded voice never sounds as deep or as full as the live voice we hear. It seems unexpectedly different and many of us don't like the recorded voice. Worse still though, some like neither their recorded voices nor their live versions. Extreme dislike of one's own voice can manifest in psychological conditions such as social anxiety disorder. At the heart of this condition is the idea that we find something profoundly flawed or embarrassing about ourselves. We also believe that other people will evaluate us negatively or reject us outright based on these imagined imperfections.

If we suspect that our own voice might be a source of embarrassment, then we will try to avoid situations where it is required of us to speak. Some of the contexts most commonly avoided by people with high levels of social anxiety include: giving oral presentations, speaking on the phone in front of others and talking at a meeting.

Of course, we cannot always avoid social situations. The anxiety, however, that rises when we are forced to perform in such contexts can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fear of sounding weird can lead to actually sounding weird. In such situations, social anxiety gives rise to mumbling, speaking too quietly or too quickly.

In the online world though, escape or avoidance is an option. Those who dislike the sound of their own voice can simply choose to never send a voice tweet. I am sure that someone by now must already be working on a voice filter add-in. A new button perhaps that would allow us to enhance our voices, enabling us to take it up or down an octave, giving us the audio equivalent of the puppy-face image filter.

It remains to be seen if voice tweets become a trend and whether or not they give rise to a growing number of people seeking voice-lifts

But beyond the use of filters, people take more severe measures. So those who are unhappy with their physical appearance, for example, often opt for face-lifts. The rate of people undergoing elective rhinoplasty (nose jobs) has increased in recent decades, with further growth projected in the coming years. One factor attributed to the rise of rhinoplasty is the popularity of selfies on social media. It remains to be seen if voice tweets become a trend and whether or not they give rise to a growing number of people seeking "voice-lifts".

The voice-lift, a surgical procedure for raising and lowering the pitch, is known as thyroplasty.

Packaged as "voice rejuvenation", an article in ENT today suggests that the surgery has become increasingly popular among European and North American baby boomers who wish to sound younger. Voice tweets, if they catch on, might just nudge these lesser-known voice augmentation procedures into the mainstream.

There are, however, many of us who are okay with the sound of our own voices, recorded or otherwise. In our recent research in the UAE, we find the world splits evenly into those who like and those who dislike their voices. In fact, many of us much prefer our own voice to that of our peers. Our research looked at the relationship between social anxiety and own voice liking among 200 bilingual (Arabic and English speaking) college students. It was no surprise that dislike of one's own voice was associated with greater social anxiety, especially when speaking in one's native language.

However, many of us do like our own voices, even more than the voices of our peers. This was demonstrated in a study published in 2013 in the journal Perception. The study involved having participants rate the attractiveness of a range of voices that, unknown to the participants, also included recordings of their own voices. Participants tended to evaluate their own voices as sounding more attractive than the voices of other people. In short, when we didn't know it was us, we liked how we sounded, a lot. This is an example of what psychologists call implicit egotism.

I suspect that voice tweets will further encourage more of us to listen to our own voices more often. Once we get over the surprise and disappointment of unmet expectations, we might grow to like the sound of our recorded voice.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: June 29, 2020 07:09 PM

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