Vocal Fry in the Workplace

Cristen Conger

Lena Dunham is the vocal-fried voice of her generation.
Lena Dunham is the vocal-fried voice of her generation.

Perhaps never before* had a pair of studies triggered so much panic among the American public. First, there was the 2010 paper in the journal American Speech that discovered a "new type of female voice in America" denoted by a distinctly creaky sound. Then, in 2011, a study out of Long Island University found more than two-thirds of the 34 college women recruited exhibited a "popcorn-like sound or creak when they spoke."

And with that, vocal fry, or glottalization, which is the lowest vocal register beneath falsetto and modal, made its debut to the U.S. public in the form of frenzied media stories about how young ladies were creaking and crackling their newfangled Millennial voices in all sorts of unpleasant ways (even though vocal fry happens all the time among older folks as well...just give a listen to NPR for a while, and you're sure to catch it). It became so widely talked about -- and fretted over -- Caroline and I devoted a podcast to exploring the intersections between gender, linguistic trends and vocal fry.

Vocal fry popped back up in the news cycle recently with a new study published in PLOS ONE, "Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market." In a nutshell, the study recorded seven male and female voices saying "Thank you for considering me for this opportunity," some with plenty of vocal cord-fluttering fry and others non-fried. Then, a group of 800 men and women volunteers listened to the recordings and rated them on how likely they'd hire them for a position.

Overwhelmingly, people wanted to hire the non-fried voices more, and women exhibiting vocal fry were judged the most harshly, penalized even more than deep-fried men. Why the female-targeted anti-fry negative bias? The study authors wrote:

One explanation is that the lowering of voice pitch via vocal fry results in a sex-atypical voice pitch modulation for females but sex-typical for males. Fraccaro et al. [16] suggest that deliberate sex-atypical voice pitch modulation (i.e. raising pitch in men and lowering pitch in women) is interpreted negatively in the context of attractiveness. One could therefore view the results here as an extension of this finding to an economic context, whereby deliberate lowering of voice pitch in a sex-atypical manner by females through vocal fry results in negative labor market perceptions.

Nonetheless, as the authors noted, the dreaded creak seems to be sneaking into more and more young women's voices. Particularly when hanging out with friends (guys or women), I catch myself frying all the time. And, honestly, all of the vocal fry media backlash amuses me more than it induces any fry self-monitoring because, hey, even though plenty of people hate the sound it's quite clear that our young female voices are being heard.

*It had probably happened before.

Related Stuff Mom Never Told You: Are young women ruining American speech?