In a post yesterday about the Democratic candidate’s debate this week, I wrote, as a coda to the usual observations about Elizabeth Warren (that she’s a demagogue, that she’s a relentless populist panderer, that she advocates things in public that as a law school professor she knows are impossible or unconstitutional…that sort of thing),
“Maybe its just me, but she talks through her nose, and has one of the most annoying voices in the history of politics. Do you think that doesn’t matter? It matters. It’s also fixable.”
I’m a professional stage director (at least when someone’s willing to pay me to direct a play, anyway), and fixing bad speech habits is part of the job. Most of the time, it is just a matter of making an individual listen to themselves. I could fix Elizabeth Warren in a few hours.
Commenter Jeff, however, raises an interesting point, as he writes,
I think the window on “fixable” might have closed. If Warren took voice lessons and learned to speak with a more pleasing voice, wouldn’t it feed the perception that she’s phony? She’s already got an authenticity problem, and if her voice suddenly became non-annoying, it would be quite noticeable. Had she done it before getting all the press coverage of the primary race, it might have gone unremarked, but I think it’s too late now, especially as she takes the front-runner spot (and its attendant scrutiny from the other candidates) away from Biden.
Can you imagine the hay Trump would make with that? Sample tweet:
“Liz Warren, the Fake Indian, is such a phony she doesn’t even talk with her Normal voice anymore! So sad!”
Jeff has made a fascinating observation that raises macro life competence lessons. Is it a sign of weakness and proof that one is inauthentic to address a flaw? Is it ever unethical to make oneself better? I’m sure that President Trump would reach that conclusion, since he has many fixable flaws—including in his speaking style— that he waves like a flag. However, it is hard to believe that becoming easier to listen to would cost Warren more votes than it would gain her. Communications skills are essential in leadership roles and life generally. If you are hard to listen to, people stop listening. The cognitive dissonance scale also operates when one has annoying vocal habits. Our voices are as symbolic of us as our appearance is. Negative sounds and sights associated with a person drag the person down on the scale. This thing…
That’s why Ted Kennedy always went on a diet when he was considering running for President. That’s why Joe Biden has hair plugs. That’s why Al Gore hired a fashion consultant to make him look less like a stiff. People are generally less attentive to the tics and habits that make them sound bad than they are to the features that make them less physically attractive, perhaps because their voices sound fine to them due to sheer familiarity.
The trope that complaints about female politicians having annoying voices is sexist is relevant here, and it is a classic example of how being obsessed with discrimination can undermine a group. People complain about female politicians having annoying voices because so many of them do. Their speaking styles may not be a detriment in a bar, or at a party, or in the bedroom, but when women are seeking leadership positions, roles that anthropology , evolution and human society did not see them as fulfilling, common female speech is absolutely a problem.
A vast number of women in the US, perhaps a majority, have speech pathologist that have been created cultural expectations, lazy teachers, peer group influence and male dominance. Too man women talk in their head and through their noses because high voices are supposed to be more alluring, unthreatening, (and childlike). Breathy voices are supposedly sexy. Even light lisping, which is anathema to males, is tolerated in women because it is “feminine.” All of these features and others, however, signal weakness and submissiveness. A woman who wants to lead, be it in the nation, the boardroom, or anywhere else, is foolish not to address a vocal style that undermines her goal. Making a voice strong is the first step; making that voice comfortable to listen to is the next. The first without the second results in strident speaking: a woman who just sounds like a man with a higher voice is not going to be easy to listen to, any more than a woman who sounds like James Earl Jones. Successful actresses know how to sound forceful and feminine at the same time, because they have to. Politicians have to as well–acting is a primary skill in politics, as Ronald Reagan pointed out—and aspiring female politicians who would rather cry “Sexism!” than upgrade their leadership skills are both handicapping themselves and informing us that they aren’t fit to lead.