The Frying Game: on vocal fry and sexist feedback


Have you heard the latest ‘it’ issue to affect women in the workplace?  It’s called “vocal fry”, and it’s getting a lot of press.

If you ARE a woman in the workplace, you may have read in the news or heard from your superiors that vocal fry (or upspeak, or “sexy baby voice”) is holding you back.  You may have been told you need to “fix” this in order to be competitive.   And if you’ve done a little investigation and learned to identify the sound of vocal fry, you may also have noticed men using it too--and wondered where those articles are.

This American Life recently tackled the topic.  The episode begins with a horrific story of internet bullying from reporter Lindy West (which highlights another kind of attack on women’s voices in a truly heartbreaking way).   In Act Two, Ira speaks with some of his female producers and fellow reporters about the kind of feedback they get from listeners about their voices and what they think about it.

Ira posits: “Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak, which is when you put a question mark at the end of a sentence and talk like this. But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.”  Reporters responded that this kind of feedback makes them both more self-conscious of their own voices, and more critical of other women’s voices--and ashamed of both responses.

Then Ira Glass (in his quiet magical Ira way) asks if they’ve ever noticed that he “fries” as well.

They have not.

Neither have many listeners.

In our experience as vocal coaches--the same way that young women are disproportionately criticized for work/life balance, workplace demeanor, and even (if you can believe it) working too hard--young women are disproportionately criticized for their voices.

We want to say to you unequivocally:  YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE ‘FIXED’.  That being said--we also believe the hot issue of vocal fry deserves some clarification.

Vocal fry isn't a problem because it make you sound “dumb” or “girlish” or “young”.  Vocal fry is a problem because it cuts you off from your full presence, breath, power, and ability to connect.  

As voice coaches, we believe wholeheartedly that woman can gain presence, power, and confidence by learning to use their full vocal instrument.  When we talk about presence and power, we don’t mean volume.  We’re talking about the ability to truly connect with your audience.  We see it all the time- the moment someone really connects with their full voice, their presence becomes vibrant...charismatic..dynamic...engaging.    It’s powerful stuff--like turning your charisma from black and white to full HD.  Witnessing and supporting this transformation is what keeps us passionate about what we do, and EVERYBODY has this potential already within them.

All of this backlash against vocal fry misses the point: it focuses on the style and the effect with no real understanding about what it is or why it occurs.

Let’s talk about vocal fry on a physical level:  Your voice is a combination of your breath, your vocal cords, and your resonators.   Breath powers the voice, the vocal cords create vibration, and the resonators are the places in our bodies that act as amplifiers.  From a physical standpoint, vocal fry happens when we don't use enough breath to fully engage and close the vocal cords--this leaves our cords vibrating together in a deeper tone, but without enough breath support to carry the sound.   Essentially, it’s a breathy voice that uses tension in the cords and the throat to create volume--and it can be extremely damaging in the long run.

But there is another equally important element to how our voices develop:

We learn to speak as social animals.  

The vocal patterns we develop (vocal fry, upspeak, regional dialects) come out of a subconscious instinct to fit in.   These patterns served you at some point.   Specifically, vocal fry creates a laid back sound with minimal effort.  Many famous faces and voices of pop culture through the 90’s and 00’s (Britney Spears. Justin Timberlake, most of the young Disney actors--and looking back further Luke Perry, James Dean, etc.) spoke this way.  It’s gravelly and deep and has “cool factor”. Some may associate vocal fry with 'Valley girls', but we’ve also heard our fair share of men who do it too--from undergrads to young Wall Street types.  Vocal Fry is also the sound of Bro-ness.

Vocal fry is a learned affectation formed out of a complex set of social cues and physical habits. Our issue as vocal coaches with vocal fry is not that young women sounding like young women is bad- it’s that there is SO MUCH MORE to your voice.  As our brilliant vocal coaching colleague Theresa McElwee says:  “Your habitual voice is not your natural voice.”

Lets be real:  No one walks into a room saying “I want to sound like (insert insulting stereotype of young woman here).”   

And frankly- some of the 'solutions' we see well-meaning supervisors put into place don’t address the core issues of voice and communication.  'Correcting' upspeak by practicing ending sentences 'on a DOWN' is rarely helpful--and ironically that artificially lowered tone at the end of a sentence often pushes women into vocal fry land.  We’ve seen this happen to more than one of our clients.

And here's why we have to change the discussion around vocal fry, upspeak, or whatever the latest 'it vocal issue' is: because criticizing someone's voice is deeply personal.  It is akin to criticizing the deepest parts of who they are.  It’s saying that how you connect with the world is wrong.

Our friend Josh Chenard (the head of the Acting Program at New Mexico State University) puts it beautifully:  "Making anyone self-conscious about their voice is such a disturbing practice to me because it is a swipe at their humanity. I think about all the amazing sounds we produce: unabashed laughter, moans of pleasure, wails of grief....all of it uncluttered, authentic, and fully expressive. Our voices should operate in the same of opinion, free of habit, free of tension, free of the limitations others have placed on us or we on ourselves. The same freedom and joy many of us take when singing in the shower or in the car is the exact joy and freedom we should allow ourselves when speaking every day."

Telling women that their voices suck contributes to another major problem: women not wanting to speak up in the workplace.   

In casual speech or with your friends, how you speak is not an issue.  In the workplace, or other environments, you may want to use your voice in a more powerful way.   This is NOT the same as fixing yourself- it is about opening up the range of choices you have available to you, and recognizing that your voice is a key component in how you present yourself.  Through studying acting for many years, we have learned that acting training does not turn you into someone else, it actually helps you embrace more of who you are.  It’s the same with vocal training--there is no one way we want our clients to sound.   It’s the full range of the authentic instrument we want to give you access to, so you can make the choice.

Again- there is no perfect example of communication, and many vocal “mistakes” actually become a celebrity’s trademark (pointing at you, Ira, as well as Terry Gross, Kristen Chenoweth, Janis Joplin, the list goes on).  We also know a number of women who have a ‘valley girl sound’ who are extremely successful: among them, a woman who runs a multimillion-dollar restaurant in Manhattan and manages 35 employees on a daily basis, and a very successful casting director who finds more youthful speech actually makes her more accessible to her clients.

Many women come to us asking how they can better fit the model that already exists, and that can be an effective place to start.  But what about the possibility of creating a new model--one that fits with your core communication values?   What new paradigm of leadership do you want to see? How do you want to use your power? You don’t need to sound like someone else.  You need to sound like all of you.

In the complex conversation about women in the workplace, it's tempting to place blame--to look for easy "culprits" that explain why the world works the way it does.  All of these articles (“THIS is what is wrong with how woman act in the workplace”) contain perhaps just enough of a tiny grain of truth that they stab into our soft places.  They get under our skin.  Vocal fry, upspeak, who you SHOULD sound like, how you SHOULD act…. but there is so much at stake here!  We need nuance and creativity and collaboration in this conversation.  We need to work both from the ground up and the top down to support the growth and success of smart, talented, creative, fierce young women.

Lindy West sent this tweet out after the TAL piece aired:



Yes, Lindy--we agree.  (Especially about cheese.)

But accessing your authentic power and presence?  That’s worth caring about.

And fighting for.  

Casey and Julie