It’s a well-known fact: my friend’s boyfriend hates it when us girls come over. We block the TV for video games, bother him with questions about his day, litter the room with our coats and bags, and more importantly, become squealing infants.
“OMG hiyeeeee!” we exclaim or “ I love youuuuu.”
It’s the phenomenon known as the ‘baby voice’—a mix of high pitch, vocal fry, and ‘up-talk.'
Typically, the baby voice is assumed as a vocal affectation men love (sounds sexy) and women loath (seems stupid). Yet, said-boyfriend hates baby talk and so does my brother. And of my girlfriends who occasionally baby talk, one manages a team of 50 people and the other is enrolled in architecture school. Furthermore, none of us engage in baby speak to assumedly attract men. So why, when we’re together do we talk this way?
There’s basic biology: men are larger. “They have larger larynxes that thus produce different acoustic sounds,” Professor of Linguistics at New York University Gregory Guy explains to me. Women are smaller. Allowing them to emit sounds smaller objects would make like, say, babies, or your dogs chew toy.
Often times though, this speech pattern is reinforced. “Some kids, when they have cute voices, get a lot more attention,” celebrity vocal coach Roger Love simply states. So while puberty will force a boy’s voice to change, a girl’s will remain the same. Leading many to carry their ‘cute’ baby voice into adulthood because, well, why change what works?
This, of course, is problematic.
Problematic because, as Love puts it, “when you have a baby voice and people perceive you to have that cutesy and baby sound, then you end up molding your personality to it. You try to be cute and say funny things. But, maybe that’s not your personality at all. Maybe you’re more serious. Maybe you’re a genius but you have a hard time making people understand that you should run the company because you sound like the daughter of the person who should run the company.” (Sophia Amoruso must address this somewhere in #GirlBoss, right? How to not sound like the daughter of a CEO?)
This is Bell’s point too in the movie: Her sexy baby voice (SBV, for short) character can’t secure a job as a lawyer because no one takes her seriously.
“Women have learned these conditions,” asserts Gigi Buffington, assistant arts professor in NYU’s Tisch Drama department. “They have received approval for them and their voices reflect it. Let’s say a young woman wants something—the way she has learned to get something she wants is by disempowering her voice by using a little girl sound.”
So, while it’s easy to assume a woman with a baby voice is simply unintelligent, biology and social conditioning often work against her. As Buffington explains too, “The baby voice is a safe place to be. It keeps people in positions of authority feeling like they’re in positions of authority.”
But, a chronic baby voice (or any vocal tic for that matter) is easy to fix. It simply requires awareness and correct use of breath. Love recommends you:
1) Inhale and let the belly expand
2) Exhale and feel the stomach contract
3) Speak only during that time of contraction
This technique grants greater range and control over the voice, which Buffington says “will allow a woman to go into any situation and speak her truth from a place that is her unique center. So she can then stretch that into many different directions to be as dynamic and as authentic as she chooses to be so that she can change the world. When a woman is in the center and in her truth—I lean in, let me tell you.”
Yet, there’s another reason my friends and I talk this way. “A group of women together,” professor Guy explains, “one of the things they may be doing is emphasizing and displaying and constructing their femininity and feminine identities.” So while our baby voices might not be appropriate for the boardroom or classroom, in my friend’s living room, it’s fine. We realize what we’re doing and feel no reason to change.
Though, if we spoke that way any longer than a few minutes, I would be worried.