Vocally Fried: Stereotypes, Nonverbal Behavior, and Societal Bias Against Women Attorneys

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Michael J. Higdon, University of Tennessee College of Law, is publishing Oral Advocacy and Vocal Fry: The Unseemly, Sexist Side of Nonverbal Persuasion in volume 13 of Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD (2016). Here is the abstract.

In 2015, Naomi Wolf warned that “the most empowered generation of women ever — today’s twenty-somethings in North America and Britain — is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.” She was referring to the phenomenon referred to as “vocal fry” — a speech quality in which the speaker lowers her natural pitch and produces a “creaking” sound as she talks. Naomi Wolf is not alone in her warnings; vocal fry has received quite a bit of negative attention recently. Specifically, these critics warn that those who speak in vocal fry are doing themselves great harm by undermining the speakers’ overall perceived effectiveness. In fact, recent studies even lend some support to these arguments, showing that listeners tend to rate those who speak in vocal fry more negatively.

The problem, however, is that much of this criticism is directed at young women, and for that reason, some defenders of vocal fry have countered that these criticisms are merely attempts to regulate how women talk. In other words, a preference for speech that does not contain vocal fry is actually motivated by pernicious stereotypes about how women “should” talk.

Thus, on the one hand, there are those studies supporting the argument that women who engage in vocal fry are less likely to be perceived positively, yet on the other hand, there exists the very real likelihood that these perceptions are based on gender stereotypes. Accordingly, the question emerges: what should a young woman do? Should she eliminate all instances of vocal fry from her speech so as to maximize her perceived effectiveness as a public speaker if, in so doing, she is reinforcing the very gender stereotypes upon which such preferences are based? Or should she openly confront such stereotypes and employ vocal fry as much as she likes, knowing that, by taking that approach, she is taking the risk that she might be hurting not only herself but also those upon whose behalf she speaks?

This essay, by first discussing this background on vocal fry, delves into that very dilemma. It does so specifically in the context of female attorneys given that 1) public speaking is a key component upon which their effectiveness is gauged and 2) to the extent their public speaking is judged to be less than ideal, they are not only harming themselves, but also potentially a client. Finally, in wrestling with this question, these essay hopes to shed light on a bigger concern — specifically, how useful are studies on effective nonverbal behavior when the results of those studies are largely driven by underlying societal prejudice.

Download the essay from SSRN at the link.

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