Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

maxresdefaultMany people have remarked on the inclination of some young women in the US to use “up-talk” in everyday speech.

You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.

More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.”  See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.

Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny.  Highly recommended.)

I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment.  But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it  couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.

After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval.  But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying.  If people agree with us, fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.

And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own.  The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist.  It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.

So how about this?  We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.

I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”).  So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else.  Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.

Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and  friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.

Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation

[None of these names is used by permission.  I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]

13 thoughts on “Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

  1. Christopher Meyers

    I agree up-talking (and possibly vocal fry) is indicative of the problems caused by sexism, but is there a compelling reason to believe that changing the vocal performance will have a significant affect on the cause?

  2. Grant Post author

    Christopher, good question. I think so. Up-talking (and possibly vocal fry) make women appear to accept a sexist assessment of who they are. And that’s disastrous. And this is just the public effect. I think we’re also obliged to worry about the private effect. If you up-talk, do you not accept the idea implicit in up-talking, i.e., that you should expect the world to doubt what you say? (Especially when men are raised, generally, to expert the world to accept what they say.) Thanks, Grant

    1. Christopher Meyers

      Thanks Grant. I definitely agree that up-talking has a clear relation to a sexist power structure; I’m just not totally convinced that vocal fry is:
      1) the same type of indicator
      2) significantly more prominent in women
      3) the wrong place to treat the problem, (ie. a symptom and not the cause)

      All that said, I applaud the consideration of this approach and agree with your perspective, in that, if these markers are actual problems we should avoid blaming the speaker and instead seek a solution that empowers the speaker.

      Have you heard the recent This American Life episode that addressed vocal fry? I enjoyed it quite a bit. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/if-you-dont-have-anything-nice-to-say-say-it-in-all-caps

      1. Grant Post author

        Christopher, agree totally, I think that vocal fry may be a corrective that’s gone too far. For me the big paradox is this. Living as we do in the light on a celebrity culture, people have become hyper sensitive about how they look but not, ever so strangely, to how they sound. And yes agree totally that we should not blame the victim. Though I think we can presume to correct him/her. Thanks for the American Life ref. Very useful. Thanks again. Best, Grant

  3. xian

    It looks like Christopher identified the radio source I was influenced by as well, leading to many of the sam concerns.

  4. Michael Powell

    Is it any coincidence that the cultural geography origin stories of uptalking and vocal fry share common ground in “The Valley” of Los Angeles? So, when we talk about the influence of celebrity culture on everyday life, this may just be Ground Zero for the confluence of forces, where the social reproduction of Hollywood’s creation actual happens, as celebrity gets filtered through producers and actors to their children and their children’s friends. Just one theory or dimension of pop culture transmission.

  5. laura

    Hi Grant,

    I loved this article, but you’ve got me worried. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I suspect I’ve been doing the vocal fry (probably not excessively) without realizing it. In fact, just now I caught myself doing it on a voice note recorded a few months ago!

    I have never lived on the West Coast, I left the US in 1997 to live in Europe, I have never watched The Kardashian Sisters, and my US TV exposure is spotty and dated. I feel sure that this trend predates my departure from the US. I think it bears looking at late 80’s/early-mid 90’s pop culture for the origin.

    The interesting thing here is that I come from the southeast, in an area where up-talking is so pronounced that even I often had trouble figuring out if women were stating a fact or asking a question. Thankfully, I have never used that kind of intonation.

    What could this anecdotal evidence bring to bear on the question of where this came from? Anything?

    All the best,

    1. Grant Post author

      Laura, thank you for this very useful ethnographic datum. Your example tells us that this phenomenon begins sooner than most of us imagine and is distributed more broadly than we suspected. This is a task for a sociolinguist. As usual, the rest of us are being more provocative than illuminating. Thanks a million. Best, Grant

  6. The Urban Blabbermouth

    OMG, I hear both every where now.

    I disagree about lack of confidence. I now hear professional women at the top of their field speaking this way. They are older and this may be one of their ways to keep up with youth inspired culture and to appear young and hip.

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