Could Hillary Clinton's Voice Cost Her the White House?

Evidence shows that we perceive deeper voices as more authoritative and trustworthy. How will this impact the coming election—especially if there's a woman on the top of the ticket?
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Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Alan Freed/Shutterstock)

Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Alan Freed/Shutterstock)

Regardless of your political affiliation, you know Hillary Clinton’s name and you know she’s running for president in 2016. Over the next year and a half, you will hear her opining and debating on social media platforms, in videos and commercials, and in interviews, debates, and stump speeches.

But even though we’ll hear it again and again, we rarely consider her voice as a factor in and of itself. According to academic studies and election experts, however, this factor could matter a great deal.

Evidence shows that we perceive deeper voices as more authoritative and trustworthy. This happens to be the case when we hear deeper voices coming from a woman or a man. A study at the University of Miami found that subjects, when hearing a voice say “I urge you to vote for me this November” in lower- and higher-pitched voices, generally selected lower-pitched voices in both men and women as their chosen candidate. The study also found that lower-pitched voices are perceived as characteristic of socially dominant people.

Clinton’s voice is not particularly high, but it is inherently higher than all of her male opponents and has already garnered backlash from critics....

While Clinton’s team of campaign advisors can concoct her image through clothing choices, word choice, and even logo re-branding, they can’t easily change the pitch of voice. Clinton’s voice is not particularly high, but it is inherently higher than all of her male opponents and has already garnered backlash from critics, who have found fault with her for being “shrill” when speaking forcefully or for speaking in monotone.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint how much Clinton’s voice will impact her candidacy, other female world leaders have taken proactive steps to counter the potential negative effects of their own high-pitched voices. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, drastically altered the pitch of her voice over the course of her career and was rumored to have received voice lessons. If you are so inclined, you can listen to the effects on this before-and-after video.

Anne Karpf, a sociologist, suggests in The Human Voice that Thatcher managed, artificially and independently, to reduce the frequency of her voice by 60 hertz. Karpf believes that as a result, Margaret Thatcher permanently damaged her voice—in 2002 Thatcher announced that under doctor’s advice, she would no longer conduct public speeches.

So, how did Thatcher permanently lower her voice? As it turns out, we have considerable flexibility of where we place our voices within our natural vocal range. The study “Fundamental Frequency” found that, at least for English speakers, men tend to place their voices in the lower part of their registers and women tend to favor the mid-range.

Gender identity and native language can be a strong predictor of this pitch self-positioning. Some evidence shows that women’s voices have dropped in pitch in the past century. A cross-sectional study conducted in 1945 and 1993 called “Have Women’s Voices Lowered Across Time?” found that Australian women speak on average 23 hertz lower than they did in the 1940s. Female newscasters on English- and Japanese-speaking channels speak much lower than they did in the nineties.

This evidence could mean a lot of things. Japanese women’s voices, on the one hand, are believed to have dropped due to a decline of the traditional expectation for women to speak in high pitched voices in formal situations. On the other hand, it’s possible that as the expectation for women to embody femininity at all times has co-created pressure for them to exude “masculine” forms of authority, including in the pitch and tone of their voices.

Is there any way for Clinton to win the voice battle? Women who have lower-pitched voices are perceived as more dominant but also as less attractive. Think of Thatcher’s doctor-mandated silence after years of vocal self-manipulation. Must Clinton damage her vocal cords to be as influential as the Iron Lady?

If “someone like Hillary Clinton is getting coached to sound more like a man and wins but continues to sound more like a man in office, she doesn’t change the norm of what we expect dominant speech to sound like.”

We should not be surprised to learn that world leaders hire speech coaches, but it may be surprising to learn that male politicians also face pressure to deploy an often unrealistically low-pitched voice in public. Isaac Herzog, the Zionist Union candidate in the 2015 Israeli general elections, was criticized for having a high-pitched voice during the election. His voice was not very high but in contrast with Benjamin Netanyahu’s booming voice, it paled in comparison. This mismatch became such an issue that Herzog dubbed his campaign video with a deeper voice and took voice lessons to deepen his voice—largely to no avail, as Netanyahu won the election anyway.

I spoke with Christopher Moore, who is an associate professor of sociology at Lakeland College, about the importance of the president’s speech. When asked about Clinton’s voice, he pointed out that if “someone like Hillary Clinton is getting coached to sound more like a man and wins but continues to sound more like a man in office, she doesn’t change the norm of what we expect dominant speech to sound like. So, she’s changed [herself], not changed our perception.”

While it seems ludicrous to suggest that Netanyahu’s deep voice won him the election or that Hillary Clinton’s higher-pitched tones will cost her the White House, the fact remains that we expect our leaders to communicate effectively and the sound of their voices—like the ease or charisma with which they speak publicly—is an element in that calculus. At the same time, it behooves us to interrogate what seems most “naturally” pleasant—because our socialized perceptions about gender are embedded everywhere, including what we like to hear. Only nine percent of head of governments are women and 19 percent of the United States Congress is made up of women. Women’s vocal frequency is not the only reason women are under-represented in politics, and it may not even be a major reason. But as the studies mentioned above make clear, micro-level social interactions can accumulate to produce and reproduce macro-level gender inequality.

When asked about the possible effect of a Clinton presidency on these micro-level interactions, Moore reflected, “I’m not sure if simply having a woman president ... is going to be enough to change the immediate future of how we associate deep voices with dominance.” It’s also important to remember that Clinton’s voice does not stand in a vacuum. Her words and voice also come with context and history.

If Hillary Clinton were to become president, however, it could be a game-changer—even if we don’t hear women’s voices as “dominant,” we might at least begin to perceive them differently. “I think the more people we have with feminine sounding voices in positions of leadership, the more sounding like a leader is going to be less gendered,” Moore observes. “The problem is getting them there.”

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.

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