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Have you ever walked away from an important conversation and thought, “Wow, I didn’t sound like myself at all back there”?
You’re not alone. A recent psychological study by researchers from the University of Stirling, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that people change their vocal pitch depending on who they’re speaking to. The researchers simulated job interview questions and observed that participants altered their vocal characteristics (especially pitch) in response to people of different social status.
“A deep, masculine voice sounds dominant, especially in men, while the opposite is true of a higher pitched voice,” said Dr. Viktoria Mileva, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Stirling, in a summary of the findings. “So, if someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant than them, they raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submissiveness, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations.”
Conversely, some circumstances make people speak in a lower tone. Those who perceive themselves as more dominant are less likely to shift their pitch depending on who’s listening and, in fact, will speak in a relatively lower pitch to high-status individuals. Participants in the study were most likely to lower the pitch of their voice when responding to questions about interpersonal conflicts.
Meanwhile, people who consider themselves to be high in prestige, or who believe others look up to them and value their opinions, do not change how loudly they speak based on whom they’re talking to. Being themselves in this way is a means of demonstrating that they are more calm and in control, according to the researchers.
The findings are just the latest reminder of the varied ways people make quick judgements about others based on the information they’re given. Said Mileva, “Signals and perceptions of human social status have an effect on virtually every human interaction, ranging from morphological characteristics — such as face shape — to body posture, specific language use, facial expressions and voices.”
It’s also a good reminder to consider your voice as carefully as you might your handshake, your body language and the clothes you wear. Listen to how you speak to a range of colleagues, in casual interactions, presentations and even interviews. In situations when you need to be seen as confident and in control — alter your voice to match.