By Katie Davis
I grew up in rural Dorset, but I didn’t have what would be considered a stereotypical “west country” accent. My more neutral accent was primarily thanks to voice classes from an early age and an insistence from my mother that I speak “correctly”.
Aged 16, I found myself spending a year of Performing Arts education in the north, in Sunderland, but from the moment I stepped onto campus, I was deemed “posh” and potentially a snob because of the way I spoke.
In my first voice class, I sailed through what just happened to be Shakespeare, whilst my new peers “struggled” with their northern accents to get it sounding how the teacher, who was also from the north, wanted it to sound. Whilst I skipped through this class with ease, merely due to my accent, I felt a certain animosity from my peers; this made me uncomfortable and so I started emulating their accent, in order to fit in.
Pitching it right
We take it for granted that the voice we are presented with by a person is their natural voice, whereas it might in fact be created to maintain certain appearances. Whether we are conscious of it or not, there are many biases associated with the voice, not only a person’s accent but also something as minute as their pitch.
During a study conducted by the University of Stirling, it was discovered that people tend to change the pitch of their voice depending who they are talking to and how dominant they feel within the conversation:
“These changes in our speech may be conscious or unconscious but voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status. We found both men and women alter their pitch in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious.”
Other studies have also found that people with a deeper voice are considered more reliable and trustworthy. Here are two examples of people in the spotlight who altered their voices to become more appealing to their listeners:
Back in May of 2022, it was reported that the UK Foreign Secretary had been through vocal coaching, as she had lowered her voice, slowed down her delivery and improved her enunciation when delivering speeches. She was likened to Margaret Thatcher who had spoken in a similar manner and who was considered a hero to Truss.
A speech and language expert suggested that she had made these changes in her intonation, quality of voice and delivery because as a female in a position of power, she would potentially find it harder to be taken seriously and be able to lead in the way she wanted to. By lowering her voice, slowing her speech and increasing her volume, she could add more gravitas to her voice, so that no matter what she was saying, she would appear both confident and competent.
During his football career, the only thing that mattered was how many goals he could score for his team. However, towards the end of his professional football career, he opted to have elocution lessons.
He began to consider what his career would look like after he could no longer play professionally and he had been mocked in the past for his “rough” accent and the fairly high pitch of his voice. Therefore, he underwent intensive voice coaching to improve his accent and deepen his voice, because he believed it would get him more work when his sports career was over.
The voice for the job?
In the years since my performing days, I have maintained my normal voice, which has a naturally low tone, and when I went into teaching, I was even told that I was offered one job due to my voice and the accent with which I speak. I feel somewhat ashamed that I might have taken a role from someone more qualified than me, simply because of the way that I speak.
Overall, I believe I have been fortunate to have the voice and accent that I do, and it has often worked to my advantage, whether I was conscious of it or not. However, this does not mean that I agree with the bias against voices that we all have, however unconsciously.
We shouldn’t have to change ourselves, the way we look or sound, in order to attain the goals we set out for ourselves. Whilst many organisations are operating more inclusive recruitment processes, aiming to create more diverse teams by offering anonymous applications, does this extend to interviews, where people could still be judged for their appearances or the tone of their voice?
Are we doing enough?