In the beginning, there was Cher Horowitz. Then came Britney, Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and Kesha. What started as the markers of an oft-aped "Valley girl" accent — from uptalking, to the ubiquitous "like" — have officially weaselled into a whole generation's manner of speaking. In particular, vocal fry, which Olga Khazan at The Atlantic defines as a "popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register" (more commonly known as taaaaalking liiiiike thiiiiis), is turning many of us, girls and guys, into Zooey Deschanel sound-alikes.
A study published this week in PLOS suggests we drop our Kardashi-fied vocal trappings as soon as humanly possible. Conducted by researchers at Duke and the University of Miami, the study looked at how vocal fry affected the way people are perceived during job interviews. First, 14 young men and women were recorded saying the phrase "Thank you for considering me for this opportunity" in both a normal voice and a Britney-like croak. (Click over to PLOS to hear the samples.)
The recordings were played for 800 men and women of various ages and professions from across the country, who were then asked to choose which speakers seemed more "educated, competent, trustworthy, and attractive" — and, which one they would be more likely to hire.
The data showed that listeners ranked vocal fryers — both male and female — lower on each of the traits. When asked which candidates they'd hire, respondents chose the normal female voice 86% of the time, and the clear-sounding male speaker 83% of the time.
The effect was largely the same regardless of the age and gender of the listener. However, the female listeners had particularly negative perceptions of female fryers, producing the lowest ratings in the study. Thus, the study's authors concluded, "These results suggest young women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximise labour-market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman."
Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard that our psychological perception of female intelligence is closely associated with the way women speak. A few months ago, a study found that uptalking women are seen as less trustworthy and competent than their peers.
Still, there's evidence to suggest that vocal fry discrimination might be a generational thing. A 2010 study published in the journal American Speech surveyed young people in both California (birthplace of the creak) and Iowa on how they perceived recordings of women speaking with vocal fry. The subjects described women who spoke with vocal fry as "hesitant, nonaggressive, and informal, but also educated, urban-oriented, and upwardly mobile."
Whatever people think about this particular speech pattern, the reality is that women — and young women in particular — are clearly under a very specific kind of scrutiny by those in positions of power (like Liz Lemon). With so much pressure to come off as intelligent, competent, and professional (but still feminine, please!), maybe the goal of not sounding kind of crackly doesn't have to be at the top of the priorities list.