Voicing the Real Self When a person’s voice doesn’t reflect that person’s desired identity, how do we address the discrepancy? It starts with disentangling a person’s own expectations from those of others. Features
Features  |   February 01, 2016
Voicing the Real Self
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Speech, Voice & Prosody / Features
Features   |   February 01, 2016
Voicing the Real Self
The ASHA Leader, February 2016, Vol. 21, 42-48. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.21022016.42
The ASHA Leader, February 2016, Vol. 21, 42-48. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.21022016.42
If you sat across from a blindfolded stranger and started to speak, what might they infer from your voice? They might guess your age, your gender and your background. If they listened a little harder, they might try to determine how you’re feeling, what your sexual orientation might be, what kind of education you’ve had or what kind of person you are.
They would draw upon their own intimate knowledge of speaking and tie that with the popular stereotypes of their culture. You might feel the urge to mold their opinions, to project a particular image. In doing so, you might highlight pieces of your speech to convey a certain emotional state or tie yourself to a particular group identity. Within certain boundaries, you could try to mold what they hear.
It is clear that our voices, often understood to be fundamental markers of our identity, are also objects of design, actively crafted to achieve various social meanings. The unique qualities of our voices are determined by our individual bodies, yet our voices also have to be actively produced, unlike other attributes such as our skin color or facial features, writes Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at Oxford University’s Worcester College, in her 2003 article “Designer Voices”.
Our voice “signifies both embodiment and subjectivity, and in that sense can be seen as the most personal attribute of a human being,” says Cameron. “We want to believe the voice is the willed and authentic expression of an individual’s ‘true’ identity.”
If our voice is a constant articulation of our identity, what happens if we don’t like the performance we give or the reactions we elicit? As experts in language variation, speech-language pathologists have the capacity to work within the voice’s inherent plasticity to address that mismatch. To do so, it helps to first understand the internal and external reasons that might drive someone to seek help.

If our voice is a constant articulation of our identity, what happens if we don’t like the performance we give or the reactions we elicit?

The search for acceptance
At the start of his documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” filmmaker David Thorpe says to a friend, “I feel out of synch with my voice.” Thorpe admits that he has spent 25 years feeling uncomfortable with how he sounds and not knowing where his voice came from. As a gay man, he believes that his voice sounds too effeminate and he wants his voice to make him seem less vulnerable and more attractive to other men. He decides to seek out speech-language treatment as a solution, as a way to “take control of this problem.” Walking into his first session, he wonders if changing his voice might make him a different person. The idea strikes him as “cool.” As he says, “I’m not totally satisfied with the person I am.”
Thorpe felt that his voice was not conveying who he was, or who he wanted to be. There was an identity that he valued and wanted to project—one that was at odds with his current speaking voice. That same interplay between the search for an authentic voice and one that appeals to society at large is mirrored—and brought into particular clarity—in the transgender community.
“A gender nonconforming voice not only impacts negatively on the individual’s self-identity, but holds the potential to betray the individual’s birth-assigned gender and attract significant negative societal reactions,” explain Jennifer Oates and Georgia Dacakis, members of the speech-language pathology faculty at Australia’s La Trobe University, writing in the July 2015 issue of ASHA Special Interest Group 3’s Perspectives on Voice and Voice Disorders.
When it comes to anti-LGBT homicide, 72 percent of victims in the U.S. are transgender women, according to a 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Also, transgender people are four times as likely to have a household income under $10,000 and are twice as likely to be unemployed, found the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. It is no surprise then, that by changing their voice, they hope that they can be spared some of that hate and discrimination—the motivation for Jack Pickering to create a transgender group clinic at the College of Saint Rose, where he is a professor and co-director of the Voice and Communication Program. “I work to make an impact on how they feel about themselves and how others perceive them,” he says of his work with these clients.
As New York City–based speech-language pathologist Christie Block explains of her work with transgender clients, “I help them operate in this imperfect world.” That interplay between authenticity and “acceptability” is evident when she speaks to her clients about their goals and they describe wanting to be true to themselves, to get past the betrayal of their bodies and be treated for who they are.
That idea of speaking in certain “acceptable” ways to be treated more favorably is certainly not felt only by transgender individuals. “We all make decisions to fit in every day,” explains David Thorpe. “It is only natural to cave into that pressure, especially when you feel like who you are is not working.”
Christie Block clearly saw that societal pressure when she worked with a female litigator recently. The litigator sought Block’s help, worried about the impact of her high-pitched, upwardly lilting voice on her career. As Block worked with her to deepen her resonance and communicate more assertively, it was clear that the woman believed her voice and communication style were stigmatizing her and preventing her from being properly heard.
Certainly there is nothing wrong—or unprofessional—about this often-collaborative female style of speaking, and yet our culture traditionally values white, straight, male attributes. Therefore, it is no surprise that people believe they need to tap into those ways of speaking to succeed. When Benjamin Munson, a professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at the University of Minnesota, trains future SLPs, he makes sure to instill both an ethnographic and pragmatic understanding. “Every culture, every society has its own demands and expectations,” he says. “But these are all culturally determined and, in many ways, arbitrary.”
Addressing the physical
Society can be cruel—this is something well understood by Lisa Davidson, New York University linguistics professor. Given that cruelty, she believes anyone should be able to change their speech pattern if they feel disadvantaged because of it. And yet, as a linguist, Davidson wants to celebrate and preserve the linguistic diversity of the world. “The more variation there is, the more interesting information we have about what it means to be human,” she says.
In truth, none of us has one fixed voice—we all can be linguistically flexible. Whether consciously or subconsciously, whether to connect, accommodate or create a certain impression, we all shift the way we express ourselves with different people, notes Munson. As an analytic observer of his own language, he says that, “What I love about my voice is that it has an erudite, educated quality to it, but it also has a lot of phonetic variants that show my working-class background. I’m able to leverage that phonetic variation to switch among different personas.”
Whether by desire or necessity, it seems that the idea of vocal flexibility, of adding to our linguistic toolbox rather than eliminating any one piece, is the key to successfully supporting those who are changing their voices. So, how do SLPs help foster greater fluidity in their clients’ voice production?

The idea of vocal flexibility, of adding to our linguistic toolbox rather than eliminating any one piece, is the key to successfully supporting those who are changing their voices.

Pitch and frequency ranges are often the first aspect of voice that transgender clients want to change. However, David Azul, a lecturer in speech-language pathology at La Trobe University, writes that, “Rather than aiming at limiting the system’s possible configurations to produce vibrations only within a certain frequency range, the goal is to make the speaker’s voice production more flexible.” In his 2015 paper on the varied and complex factors affecting gender-diverse people’s vocal situations, he writes that “the aspects of vocal gender presentation amenable to modification are not only limited to fundamental frequency and its variation, but include resonance, articulation, rate, volume and other aspects of communication such as language use and nonverbal communication.”
Put a different way, no one size fits all, and there is no one way to sound masculine or feminine. That variation is something Nathan Waller keeps in mind when he runs a vocal therapy group for transgender youth at Northwestern University’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning.
“It is really easy to get trapped into working on stereotypes,” says Waller, an instructor at the center. “But if you just take an hour to watch how people communicate, you will see all sorts of variation. It is so important that we keep an open dialogue through the process to understand what the client’s goals are and what they feel comfortable with, as well as what they perceive as masculine or feminine.”
In much the same vein, when Jack Pickering works with adult transgender clients he often starts with exploring the parameters of healthy and easy-to-produce pitch and resonance, but he quickly moves on to talking about the various ways that gender is conveyed through cultural and linguistic differences. He talks about female inflection in speech and women’s tendency toward precision of articulation, clarity, musicality and fluidity. He focuses on letting his clients know what those characteristics are, “so they can choose the ones they think are most critical and the ones that best fit into their life.”
To steer clear of stereotypes and keep the focus on the match his clients are seeking, he often asks them which speakers they might like to sound like. For example, he has one older client who sees her authentic voice as a raspy, gravelly way of speaking like the singer Ann Wilson. He works with her “to build those added components in a safe way, without causing [physical] harm.”
Voice of the soul
What happens when clients modify their speech in ways that are positive from a technical perspective, but they remain unhappy with the voice they are producing because it does not match their sense of self? Jack Pickering faced this question when he started working with a male transgender social worker. Frustrated with being misidentified as a woman over the phone, the client worked “very successfully on exercises to decrease his pitch and use resonance that was stronger and more open.” And yet, as the changes started to take place, he said that he felt “disconnected to his voice; it didn’t feel like him.”
So, moving beyond the technical aspects of voice, Pickering drew on the client’s receptive skills as a social worker to re-create that connection to his voice. “We started talking about reading the cues of others and seeing how those felt to him,” Pickering explains. “Was the change in the perception of others, the way he could function differently on the phone, enough for him to get used to the change? We had many conversations about how his voice felt for him and gradually he started to feel better about the technical production of his voice and how it felt inside.”
Essentially, Pickering was encouraging his client to find opportunities to experiment and test out some hypotheses on what his most authentic voice might be. Those interactions then beg the question of whether changing our voices can actually change our identity. Jennifer Nycz, an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is quick to explain that the relationship is not so dramatic or direct. “You can’t become a totally different person, to yourself or others, simply by using different linguistic features,” she says. However, she adds, “Shifts in language do help construct aspects of your social identity and convey particular stances in conversation, and you can imagine these behaviors becoming patterns and eventually defining, in some more lasting sense, ‘who you are.’”
Drawing from the language of counseling, this act of re-storying, of creating a new narrative, works only if the client feels good about the change that is taking place. Objective feedback is key in creating that positive reinforcement, says Christie Block.
“Authenticity takes time,” Block says. “I tell my clients that their initial feelings of fakeness are a natural part of the process. I give them feedback through frequent recordings to show how they are objectively progressing. The recordings document how clients can make big differences in their life, through small, progressive changes.”
Whether she is working with accent modification clients, women looking to sound more authoritative, or the transgender community, Block knows that “when we get training, and get good feedback, that makes us confident in and of itself.” That positive feedback loop and growing confidence can come from the outside world, or from the client’s own reconnection to their voice.
David Thorpe, in reflecting on the course of filming “Do I Sound Gay?” said he “achieved a sense of ownership over my voice and a greater physical connection to that part of myself.” At the end of the movie, he has stopped doing his vocal exercises, realizing that he loves the distinctive qualities of his specific voice and the newfound awareness he has of all its possibilities. In the last words of the documentary, CNN news anchor Don Lemon sums up the crux of that journey: “There’s nothing wrong with sounding gay. There’s nothing wrong with being feminine. There’s nothing wrong with sounding straight. Just do it with confidence.”
Toward diversity of voice
It turns out that being ourselves is neither simple nor static. When thinking about our voices, and their capacity for change, it is worth keeping in mind Deborah Cameron’s assertion, “Voices are made, rather than born.” It turns out that “genuine” does not mean the same as “unwilled.” Within the boundaries of our bodies, our voices are changeable creations and we can work toward the sound that fits us best.

It turns out that being ourselves is neither simple nor static. Within the boundaries of our bodies, our voices are changeable creations, and we can work toward the sound that fits us best.

And yet, in finding that voice that best matches our inner identity, we would do well, as clients and clinicians, to steer away from any signifiers of cultural boorishness. From a linguist’s perspective, Lisa Davidson knows that all sounds are created equal, and yet she sees that “linguistic prejudice is still alive and well in the world.” Whether it be vocal fry, “up-speak,” sibilant “s” or wide pitch ranges, people are classified and judged on the micro-variations in the ways they sound.
As Sameer ud Dowla Khan, a phonetician at Reed College, wrote in an open letter to the NPR show “Fresh Air” following its interview with SLP and voice coach Susan Sankin, “There is a misguided belief that there is a ‘natural’ way to speak, or a way to speak that has no ‘styles’ … (but) what gets categorized as ‘natural’ is just how people in power speak.” In his book “Covering,” Kenji Yoshino takes that idea a step further, posing the question, “Why do we push human beings into a standardized mold, when we ought to value diversity and self-expression?”
Why not marvel at the plastic capacities of our voices, and their ability to reflect all the varied pieces of our identities, rather than limiting ourselves to singular and arbitrary boxes that other people have created?
Voice Health Conventional Wisdom: Unknown, Plausible or Confirmed?

Rest your voice after surgery. Drink plenty of water. Avoid e-cigs. Inhale steam. Moderate voice use to avoid vocal fold lesions. Use stroboscopy or laryngoscopy to identify laryngopharyngeal reflux.

Speech-language pathologists often accept these (and other) statements as truisms in voice care. Check out an online exclusive by Elizabeth Erickson DiRenzo, Kristine Tanner and Susan L. Thibeault to learn whether or not scientific evidence backs them up.

1 Comment
February 15, 2016
Cyndi Stein
Relevance of Solution Focused Therapy
This article speaks to the importance of addressing the client's agenda, dreams, and hopes for the future. Incorporating Solution Focused Brief Therapy questions into our clinical practice, with clients and family members, is a worthwhile and effective approach for addressing the issues raised in this article. These questions (e.g., " when you achieve your best hopes, how will you know?" and "What difference will this make to you?") help the client access and express his/her agenda and dream. This type of communication provides us, as clinicians, with invaluable information for treating clients. Furthermore, rather than simply establishing goals with clients, having clients visualize and expand upon on their goals helps increase motivation, the degree of progress, as well as the sustainability of that progress. (Ouellette, 2004). Cyndi Stein Rubin MS, CCC
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February 2016
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