Over the holidays my wife Diane and I had lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants. There must have been a lot of people still off work for Christmas because the place was packed and extremely noisy.
It was a casual atmosphere and all in all, it seemed rather festive. One nearby table, however, was exceptionally loud and was dominated by a person with a particularly booming laugh, that pierced your ears like an ice pick. Finally, a couple of people left that table and suddenly the entire restaurant was calmer and much more quiet. It seemed odd that only one or two people could make such a big difference.
In an episode of the television show, Friends, one of the main characters, Chandler Bing, is portrayed as having an excessively aggressive and grating laugh that he uses only at work. The other characters referred to it as “Chandler’s Work Laugh.”
Researchers from the University of California discovered that individuals with high-status often have distinctively different laughs from people with lower-status. Psychologist Christopher Oveis and his colleagues say that, “While the norms of most social groups prevent direct, unambiguous acts of aggression and dominance, the use of laughter may free individuals to display dominance, because laughter renders the act less serious.”
Analyzing the laughter displayed by members of a college fraternity, these researchers discovered that dominant laughter was louder, higher in pitch, and more variable in tone than submissive laughter. Due to the volume and pitch, dominant laughter stands out in a crowd and is arguably more irritating. They also found that in social settings, high status individuals imposed their dominant laughter on others more frequently than low-status people.
This study confirmed previous findings regarding acoustic indicators of status. Objective listeners were easily able to identify the dominant laughter with significant accuracy. The study concluded that such laughter can serve as an effective device to claim higher status, such as Chandler’s loud and uninhibited work laugh and the laughter we heard at the restaurant.
Seinfeld, another popular 1990’s sitcom, also used various speech foibles as plot devices. In one classic episode Jerry misinterprets a request from Kramer’s new girlfriend, Leslie. He is dismayed to discover that he inadvertently obligated himself to wear a puffy pirate shirt on a nationally televised interview. This misunderstanding occurred because Leslie was a “low-talker” and people were unable to hear what she was saying due to her extremely quiet speaking voice.
Research has shown that listeners often tune out someone who is difficult to understand, because of our preference for speech, words, and names that are easy to process. For example, Matthew McGlone from the University of Texas says that “…studies of stock purchases have shown that shares in companies with names that are easy to pronounce are bought at higher rates than others that are harder to pronounce.”
If a person has to ask other individuals to explain or repeat something they said more than a few times, it is highly likely the person will soon stop listening and just pretend to understand what is being said. This can occur due to factors such as speaking at a low volume, mumbling, or having an accent that is difficult to understand. This can result in miscommunication, confusion, and even discrimination.
This occasionally occurs in intelligence testing when a test administrator becomes frustrated from not being able to hear or understand the person’s responses and then begins guessing what the person might have said, leading to inaccurate test scores.
Speech pathologist and consultant Lynda Stucky says that low talkers can increase their volume through proper breathing, relaxing and exaggerating their mouth movements to create a larger area for sound to vibrate. She also advises people to avoid looking down as they speak.
Seinfeld also had an episode featuring a fast talker. Like low talkers, both fast and slow talkers run the risk of losing their audiences, especially if the rate of their speech leads to listener frustration.
My first job after graduating from college was in Mississippi. Coming from Illinois, I was immediately struck by just how slowly local residents spoke. It was a bit frustrating at times, but I’m sure they were just as exasperated by the rapid speech of Yankees from the Land of Lincoln.
A few years ago the analytics firm Marchex analyzed more than four million recorded telephone calls. They found that the top five fastest speaking states are Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Iowa. States with the slowest speakers were North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Mississippi was rated as the slowest speaking state of all.
Seinfeld introduced its audience to another unusual speaker, Aaron, who was one of Elaine’s boyfriends. Aaron was a “close talker” who gets within a couple of inches from other peoples’ faces when speaking. Most people see this as an invasion of personal space. Internationally the United States is in the middle when it comes to personal space preferences. Stucky says, “The appropriate physical distance between people while communicating is about two feet. Any closer than that feels uncomfortable or very personal and private.”
Finally, there was a minor Seinfeld character named Dan. He was called a high talker because he had an unusually high-pitched voice. On the phone his voice sounded exactly like that of his girlfriend, Noreen, who was a friend of Elaine’s. Elaine mistakes his voice on the phone for Noreen’s and the comedy ensues.
Fast and high pitched voices often have been associated with a number of negative attributes by other people. Psychologist William Apple from Columbia University and his colleagues manipulated recordings of interviews they conducted, systematically altering the pitch of the interviewee’s voices, as well as the speed of their speech. They then had other people rate these speech samples on a number of different dimensions. They found that speakers with high-pitched voices were assumed to be less truthful, less emphatic, and smaller, thinner, and more nervous. Slow-talking speakers were judged to be less truthful, less fluent, less persuasive and more passive, slower, colder, and weaker.
It appears that unusual speech styles are much more influential in how others form their impressions of us than most people realize. This wasn’t lost on songwriter Randy Newman, who wrote the insightful lyrics, “We talk real funny down here. We drink too much and we laugh too loud.” Diane and I, however, were still fans over his entire career.