WATCH: According to a new UBC study, when it comes to someone’s voice, we’re very particular about what we like. Linda Aylesworth reports.
TORONTO – Whose voice do you like more – the breathy Marilyn Monroe or the creakier voice of Kim Kardashian?
New University of British Columbia research suggests that we tend to prefer voices that sound similar to our own. If you’ve ever noticed that your closest friends speak the same way as you, the Canadian researchers say it’s because we gravitate towards a “soothing sense of community and social belongingness.”
“The voice is an amazingly flexible tool that we use to construct our identity. Very few things in our voices are immutable so we felt that our preferences had to be about more than a person’s shape and size,” lead author Dr. Molly Babel said.
“Generally, most people like to fit in. We use speech to establish group membership and social cohesion,” she told Global News.
A quick run-through on speech: for most speech sounds, the initial sound or noise is generated at our vocal folds, which are in our larynx. If you hold your throat and say ‘aaaaaah,’ you’ll be able to feel them vibrate. After that, the sound travels through our neck and mouth to reach someone’s ear – it’s this part that shapes the sound that exits our mouth, Babel says.
“This means that to a large extent, the sound of our voice is going to be determined by our shape and size,” she said.
But culture plays a part in voice, too: if you grew up in Alabama, or Vancouver or Quebec City, you’re going to sound different. So physiology and acquired accents are important factors, but there’s still room for identity construction. (Babel points to previous research on how people in Oklahoma pronounced words like “night” or “rice” – the way these words were pronounced correlated with how much people liked Oklahoma. If you were a proud resident, you tended to go with “naught” over the conventional “night.”)
Babel doesn’t know if the way we manipulate our voices is a conscious decision. Think of the phenomenon of the “creaky voice” – “we’re aware of it on some level, which is how we orient ourselves to particular speech patterns associated with particular social groups but we typically don’t intentionally do certain speech styles,” Babel explained.
So what does this mean for Canadians? Gender differences help to determine what we prefer in voices. Babel’s study suggests that we prefer men who spoke with a shorter average word length. We also like “larger” sounding male voices, like deep, crooning voice of singer Barry White.
When it comes to women, we tend to be allured by the breathier voices – think of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday – over creakier voices like the Kardashian sisters or actress Ellen Page.
“The allure of breathiness – which typically results from younger and thinner vocal cords – relates to our cultural obsession with youthfulness and health,” the researchers say in a press release. A creaky voice might hint at someone fighting a cold or a regular smoker.
But it’s our social groups that help us determine which voices we like to hear the most. And we especially preferred voices that are specific to the community we’re part of. In her study, Babel collaborated with California scientists, asked college-aged students to listen to voices then had them pick out which ones were most attractive.
Babel ran similar studies in Vancouver, California and Minnesota. The people rating voices in Vancouver and California had similar taste in what they liked, while the Minnesotan listeners differed the most.
So why do foreign accents always sound so attractive? Babel’s guess is that the exotic end is also appealing.
“Once you are outside of a certain range of familiarity, novel and exotic sounding voices might become more attractive,” she said.
“We also have to keep in mind that we find some accents more preferable than others because of social stereotypes that are associated with them,” she said.