‘The most annoying voices’

September 17, 2019


Fatema Rehmani

Reviewing notes, junior Kathryn McAuliffe prepares for the Greater St. Louis Speech Association Workshop Aug. 24. She finished ninth in Internal Extemporaneous Speaking at the 2019 NSDA Eastern Missouri District Tournament. “I've always prepared [for tournaments] knowing this bias is something I've had to deal with. Public speaking-wise, I always make sure I'm not loud when I speak, that I'm always controlled in what I'm saying so that I look very poised,” McAuliffe said. “That pays off so your judge isn't judging you for being too passionate, and they can't say that you're outrageous in what you're saying.”

At long last, the noise subsides and Borgsmiller has an opportunity to finish her lesson plans. She is teaching Human Communication, the first time the course has ever been offered.

An upcoming unit entails the study of voice quality, and as such, Borgsmiller peruses the Internet for video examples of various voice types to show her class. 

“I was looking for the thin voice, a voice that resonates just in your mouth that doesn’t go in the chest or the nose. Everything that I found in that initial search was not an example of voice, it was articles about the most annoying voices that women have,” Borgsmiller said. “They were labeled as ‘horrible’ and ‘annoying,’ and that’s just the perception that people have. That thin voice has to be a female voice; it’s annoying, and we don’t want to hear it. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t think a lot has changed. That subconscious reaction to the sound of a female voice means you have to fight that more than a man does.”

Empirically, humans internalize deeper voices as stronger, thus more desirable and persuasive. From debate rounds to political elections, males hold a quantifiable advantage over females, not because of the words they say but the way they sound.

“When I’m debating against girls, my style definitely changes. I allow myself to be more passionate when I speak. If a girl’s really confident right before she’s about to compete, then she’s thought of as cocky, but if a guy is, he’s ‘assured of himself,’ so I’ve received a lot of comments after rounds,” McAuliffe said. “There needs to be more attention put on the fact that girls have a harder time in speech and debate and have a harder time being trusted. That impacts how girls perceive themselves even.”

Teri Quatman of Santa Clara University’s Department of Counseling Psychology and Education concluded that “boys significantly outperformed girls” in six out of eight aspects of adolescent self-esteem. All the while, Humphrey recalls numerous occasions of female voices rendered little more than punchlines.

Maddie Cooke
Alumna Kristina Humphrey rehearses prior to a round at the Greater St. Louis Conference Tournament Oct. 28, 2017.

“In [Humorous Interpretation], when I have to play a male character, it’s kind of funny, but when a guy plays a girl character, judges lose their minds. It’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen because they can make their voice higher,” Humphrey said. “All of my sophomore year, all of my finals rooms were just guys and me. It was hard competing against that with the judges because they’re all like, ‘oh, these guys are so funny–and then there’s this girl.’ It’s just more expected because of sexism that guys are going to be smarter than girls, better debaters than girls.”

Junior Grace O’Connor, specializing in Program Oral Interpretation (POI) and Poetry Reading, recounts instances in which perceptions of her voice shaped the outcome of entire tournaments.

“With POI and poetry, since you have to have different characters, it’s all about playing around with characters. One of my characters was a person who just lost her mom to cancer, and I made her mad at the world. I got a comment that ‘anger doesn’t look good on you,’” O’Connor said. “That’s super disappointing to hear because people are allowed to feel anger, especially when they’re going through tragedy. A thing that really bothered me was there was a person in my round, and his piece was all about different emotions and how people cope with loss and the seven stages of grief. His character was extremely angry. He was yelling and storming around, and the judge gave him first in the room. When I was angry in my piece, it was seen as stupid and annoying.

“Girls can’t be too aggressive. You have to compromise what you want to say so that people view it as polite. That’s another challenge that women have in debate that men don’t. They don’t have to be conscious of everything they’re saying and their tone and their pauses. Whenever I talk, I only think about how I can make this sound polite so what I’m saying can be heard and not dismissed.”

There needs to be more attention put on the fact that girls have a harder time in speech and debate and have a harder time being trusted. That impacts how girls perceive themselves even,

— junior Kathryn McAuliffe

Another day goes by–and the team moves another day closer to the next tournament. The afternoons to follow will bear witness to new strategies and arguments at practice rounds, but some old habits will survive well past this week.

“I will say that as a coach, I’m even guilty of doing the stuff that my coach in high school did, which is to tell my female speakers to find ways to lower your voice, to control the pitch and the tempo of your voice. You need to be passive and submissive in situations so that you don’t come off that way when the male debater that you’re going up against can do all of those things and be told that they’re being a great leader,” Borgsmiller said. “I also acknowledge that communication is a human activity, and you can’t change humans without first getting them to listen to you. Even though it sucks that you have to adapt to even get them to hear you, you have to do that first before you can start making a change and talking about what you want to talk about.”

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