The social power structure is reflected in the way people communicate. Attitudes related to these structures can therefore be noted in the way we behave in conversations. These structures are influenced by numerous factors, such as the age difference between conversational partners or the nature of their relationship. For example, the social positions of conversational partners towards each other could be described by pointing out who speaks more, who directs the topic of the conversation, or who interrupts others more.
Study of conversational dominance patterns has shown that women are interrupted much more than men. For example, in the first US presidential election debate last year, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times, while Clinton interrupted Trump 17 times. Although those kinds of interferences aren’t necessarily aggressive or even arrogant, men often interrupt women just to ensure dominant positions for themselves.
Terms such as “manterruption” (a man’s unnecessary interference when a woman is speaking), “mansplaining” (when a man cuts a woman’s speech short so he can explain something – even when she happens to be an expert on the subject), as well as “bropropriating” (when a man takes credit for a woman’s idea) have started to spread in social media to point out the social inequality between men and women.
Even attitudes towards specialists of different fields (doctors, for example) are often influenced by their gender. Women receive more questions and are interrupted more than men. Similar patterns can be seen in print media and social media. Men are allocated more space in printed newspapers and their tweets are shared two times more than women’s tweets, although 62% of Twitter users are women.
Does Creaky Voice Make Women More Heard?
Sociolinguists have noticed a popular trend among young American women: more and more women have started to speak with a creaky voice quality (or, in other words, “vocal fry”). Creaky voice is usually accompanied by a very low pitch and therefore is associated with the generally lower voices of male speakers. Creaky voice is often characterized as sounding like pulling a stick over a fence or like bacon frying on a pan (hence the term “vocal fry”). When producing creaky voice, the vocal tract is highly adducted but open enough along a portion of their length to allow voicing, resulting in a series of irregularly spaced vocal pulses.
Let’s take a look at how American journalist and entertainer Faith Salie introduces the creaky voice phenomenon:
The trend allegedly started in the Californian higher middle class and has been greatly influenced by Hollywood movies and pop culture. Have you noticed the way Kim Kardashian speaks or the way Britney Spears sings “Oops!… I Did It Again“? Thanks to mass media, even middle-aged American women have begun speaking with a creaky voice.
The popularity of creaky voice is likely caused by the characteristics of this particular voice quality – as it resembles the male voice, females with a creaky voice use it to sound more masculine and authoritative, indicating a higher social status. But there is a catch – American listeners perceive creaky-voiced women as less competent, less attractive, less educated, and less trustworthy than women who do not speak with vocal fry. Compared to creaky-voiced men, women with a similar voice quality are seen as cold, less competent, and they would not be preferred as job applicants.
Estonian Men Have Creakier Voices Than Women
As mass media and pop culture are thought to be the cause of the widespread use of creaky voice in the US, creaky voice is expected to spread to other languages influenced by American pop culture. In studying the vocal fry phenomenon based on spontaneous Estonian dialogues, we found that unlike in America, where creaky voice occurs more in female voices, here it occurs more among men. Although both men and women are creaky, it can be heard in 22% of male voices, which is double that of women, at 11%.
In addition, the study showed that using vocal fry is linked to certain social characteristics of the conversational partner. Men have less creak in their voice when talking to people older than them. The conversational partner’s gender is also an important factor.
More specifically, the older the conversational partner, the less vocal fry speakers use. Male speakers are especially sensitive to the conversational partner’s age. For example, when a man is talking to a 20-year-old, on average he has 16% of vocal fry in his voice; but when their partner is 70 years old, there is only 4% of vocal fry. For female speakers, these numbers are 10% and 7%, respectively. This indicates that age plays an important part in constructing power relationships, and the use of creaky voice indicates the conversational partners’ social positions towards each other.
As vocal fry usually occurs with a very low pitch, we wanted to know if changes in pitch could affect the amount of vocal fry. Results show that those who speak with a higher pitch have less vocal fry. The results also indicated that speakers use different pitches depending on the gender of their conversational partner. When women are speaking to men, their pitch is lower than when speaking to other women. When men talk to women, they have a higher pitch.
To figure out if these differences have something to do with who is dominating the conversation, we calculated how much time participants actually spent speaking. Our results show that this is highly related to the age difference. The older person usually has more speaking time. When two people of the same gender talk to each other, they have a relatively equal amount of speaking time; however, in conversations between a man and a woman of the same age, the man always has more speaking time.
The main results of the study showed that spontaneous Estonian conversations are mostly dominated by men (at least from the perspective of speaking time) – especially older men, and especially when the men are significantly older than their conversational partners. According to this model, young women have a relatively small chance to contribute in conversations, unless they speak to another young woman. The use of creaky voice probably hints at a dominating attitude. Varying pitch according to the gender of the partner might show the speaker’s wish to be on a similar level – or a sign of subliminal adaption.
These results are an addition to other variables indicating the stronger position of men in Estonian society. For example, the largest pay gap (benefiting men) in the European Union is still in Estonia, there are twice as many men as women in all entrepreneurial phases, and the Human Development Report from 2014/2015 highlights a higher risk of social exclusion for women. Although the connection between conversational behavior and social equality are not straightforward, it can show quite a bit about the values and power relations of a society.
Pärtel Lippus is a Research Fellow in Phonetics of Estonian Language at the University of Tartu. Kätlin Aare is a PhD student in Phonetics of Estonian Language at the University of Tartu.
The Estonian version of this post first appered in ERR Novaator.