The Story Our Voice Tells
What do you do each and every day that has a profound effect on how people judge you? It is something we do often, but rarely think about. We speak. When we speak, we think little of how to do it and more about what to say. However, if you start paying attention, you will notice that your voice changes constantly. When you are tired or overwhelmed your voice will sound gritty, dry, or quiet. When you are nervous your voice rises in pitch or you stutter. When you are confident, your voice is easy and steady. It's the way we:
• push our vocal chords
• use our resonant cavities
This is something that happens as a result of how we are feeling, how we were raised, and genetics. Think about meeting someone for the first time, the second her/his first words hit your ear, you suddenly have a clear picture of who that person is.
How do you talk? That is something David Thorpe asked himself in his documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?", where he sees a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in order to sound "less gay". He delves into what engendered his speech and how to alter it to sound more competent and authoritative. He was worried about how people perceived him, with his pronounced lisp and up-speak. In speech therapy, he had the task of learning every aspect of how he sounded and adapting it, which is very unnatural and demanding work.
As an SLP, I want to address how important our speech and voice are to us and what a big role they play in our identity. About 40 million Americans have a communication disorder and 7.5 million of those people have, more specifically, a voice disorder. These people have one thing in common, being significantly impacted by changes in the ability to communicate. What is it like to have a voice disorder?
Have you ever lost your voice after a concert or sporting event? Ever had a scratchy throat, because of smoke or a cold? Ever noticed your voice break or stutter when you're nervous? Now, imagine that this was always how you talked. Every single day, your voice was scratchy, stuttering, or wouldn't come out at all. If you have never had a voice disorder, you probably take your easy voice for granted. Millions of people of all ages have to attempt to order food, ask people out, make phone calls, and talk in class with this debilitating problem. People with voice disorders have higher rates of anxiety, isolation, and depression. Also, an increasing population seeking voice therapy is people making gender transitions.
People who are transgendered/sexual require intensive work with their voice and speech. They do not have voice disorders, however, when in gender transition, must make significant changes to their voice. Male and female voices sound unique from each other, because they are structurally different. The female larynx, "voice box", is smaller and the vocal chords are shorter, resulting in higher pitched sound. In order to sound like the opposite gender, people have to work on every aspect of speech, including pitch, resonance, prosody (stress and rhythm), volume, rate, articulation, and social language rules. This population and people with severe voice disorders may also undergo laryngeal surgery or hormone therapy. Whatever the reason people participate in voice therapy, they are actively working to change how they are perceived by you.
Your voice defines you.
It tells people:
• how you are feeling
• where you come from
• who you are
• if you are friend or foe
• important clues to your inner state.
Your voice allows you to speak your mind and partake in a basic human necessity, communication.
If you know someone who has an unhealthy sounding voice, let them know they can get help from an SLP. Most voice disorders are treatable. SLPs work with a range of people who need voice therapy from teachers and singers to people after accidents.
Taking Care of Your Voice
• Hydrate, this is the most suggested strategy to keeping a healthy voice (avoid caffeine).
• Rest your voice after prolonged use (also, whispering for long periods is damaging to vocal folds).
• Avoid overusing and abusing your voice, this includes talking loudly/yelling, talking for hours at a time,
and speaking/singing unnaturally. Use amplification and quiet environments to speak for long periods of
• Recognize symptoms of GERD (“acid reflux”), some of which are overproduction of mucus and scratchy
• Clear your throat less often or take sips of water instead.
• Avoid medications that dry the larynx and smoky environments/smoking.
Take a Look At:
The "Fresh Air" interview with David Thorpe and his SLP here.
Information for David Thorpe's documentary here
1) Dietrich, M., Verdolini, A., K., Gartner-Schmidt J., & Rosen, C.A. (2008). The frequency of perceived stress, anxiety, and depression in patients with common pathologies affecting voice. Journal of Voice: official journal of the Voice Foundation, 22(4), 472-488.