Like many young women in the US, my girlfriend has vocal fry, a speech pattern that annoys lots of people and can even hurt your employment chances. Can she be cured?
So I started dating someone, and it's not going terribly. She's beautiful, fun to drink with and likes eating steak and watching Tim and Eric. She doesn't get upset when I say she looks like a Senegal bush baby and behaves like Jabba the Hutt's tiny henchman Salacious Crumb. She's younger than I am, and I've taken to serenading her with Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," which she hates so much but I guess tolerates because she hasn't dumped me. These are all good signs!
There's one problem, though. Like many young women in the US, she has vocal fry. You've probably talked to someone who has vocal fry or read an article about it and how it can hurt your chances of getting a job. It's a low, croaky, drawn-out way of talking that makes some people want to go on murder sprees. Think Kim Kardashian or Ke$ha.
To give you an example of what I mean, I asked her to describe the dinner we ate last night and recorded it.
It's not always that bad, I swear.
Even when the actual words coming out of her mouth are well-chosen and witty, the way they're delivered can be so grating it's hard to pay attention. This isn't just my issue, either—other people are bothered by it, and even she cringes when she listens to recordings of her own voice. She says lots of smart things, but too often, people are paying attention to the way she talks rather than what she's talking about.
So we booked an appointment with Marissa Barrera, a leading speech-language pathologist and part owner of the Aspire therapy center in Manhattan. She's taught at Columbia University and Hunter College and is putting together a speech-pathology program at Yeshiva University. If anyone could fix my baby's voice, it was her. Barrera was bubbly, media-trained, and eager to teach us about vocal fry and how it can be treated. Here's what she had to say:
VICE: How often do you deal with patients with vocal fry?
Marissa Barrera: We get a few women every month who are in career paths and they are noticing that their voice and speech patterns are not allowing them to maintain with the level of sophistication and intelligence that they might actually have, since they're using their voice in a more casual or colloquial way. There have been several studies done where they've looked at Americans making judgments on voice samples, and women with vocal fry, especially at the end of sentences, are perceived as being not quite as intelligent as female counterparts saying the same sentences in a normal way.
Is vocal fry mostly a learned behavior? Not something someone is cursed with at birth?
There are certain individuals who have bona fide vocal pathologies where their vocal cords are not operational like ours, and they can develop vocal fry. But what we're seeing in mainstream America—especially in college-aged, 18- to 30-year-old women—we're seeing a lot of this becoming a learned behavior, and they're using it to manipulate communicative situations.
Girlfriend: I work in fashion and feel like a lot of the people I speak with and people above me have vocal fry. And I don't tend to notice it in other people, but I'll notice it with myself when I do an interview. I don't think about my own voice.
Most people don't, and that's normal.
Girlfriend: When I play my own voice back to myself, I'm like, "Oh my God, how does anyone listen to me?"
You just did it right there. Were you aware of it?
VICE: Let's say someone started talking with vocal fry when they were 16. Is there a physical aspect to it too, or is it only behavioral?
Yes. The vocal cords resonate for each of us at a unique frequency. It's pulses per second, measured in hertz. So there are different averages for different ages for males and females. Women are usually around 200 pulses per second. What happens with vocal fry is you actually make the cords very loose, so you get this cracking, creaking effect, since they're not actually vibrating at their natural frequency. And that's when you get the really low voice. You're loosening them up and getting bubbling air to come through. That's how the voice changes. So it is a physiological change in the voice; it's not done in the mouth. It's done at the glottis, the sound source of speech.
When you treat people with vocal fry, what treatment do you prescribe?
Like with an accent, there's nothing wrong with her, so we cannot prescribe or force upon her a treatment unless it's something she's self-seeking. Who are we to say what dialect you use? That said, many African-American men and women come in here seeking to know how to code-switch so they can use their natural vernacular, but in a job they want to be able to speak with a more standard form of English.
Can you tell us what the vocal-fry therapy would be?
It's really about self-awareness. The first thing is we have an individual naturally have a conversation and record it. Then we go back together and start to identify places where you may use glottal fry and why. What were you trying to do to make a point? See, glottal fry is associated with some type of emotion or importance or trying to demand vocal dominance. So, you're making a point, using powerful words and lowering your register to make a point. We often do it at the end of sentences because that's where we place the most meaning. So, we'll identify those places together and then we begin to pick apart the reasons why. Another thing to consider is, you could, over a prolonged time, give yourself a bona fide vocal pathology. There are 7.5 million people with those pathologies. It's a modern-day vocal epidemic, this glottal fry.
Then we start taking common phrases and develop functional phrases, things you say every day that are meaningful to you. This is hard. How you call your dog, pick up the phone, order your lunch, etc. We train you to be self-aware of not using your vocally abusive pattern. And it's important, because then you catch yourself using those sentences and condition to not use the old pattern. Then we do things to improve your respiration, a vocal hygiene program, which involves hydration and avoiding certain foods while you're doing this process.
Which foods are problematic?
Any foods that increase the acidity in one's stomach and upper esophagus. Things with mint, alcohol, certain spices, etc. Probably a hundred foods. Orange juice, grapefruit juice, high-caffeine beverages—they all have a tendency to increase the PH in one's esophagus and stomach.
Girlfriend: Oh, I have acid reflux.
OK, so what happens is when your upper esophageal sphincter relaxes, that super acidic acid spills over into your airway and burns the vocal cords. It's a cycle. There are young men and women who like to drink and smoke socially, perhaps aren't particularly careful about their diet. Using this vocal pattern opens a real Pandora's box for vocal hygiene issues.
VICE: Do young women grow out of this over time, or does it stay with them forever?
It would be unfair for me to speak to that. This phenomenon started in the early 90s, and these women are still in the workforce. I think it's something that is habitual. I think many people will "grow out of it," but I also think there's a large percentage of people for whom this has just become their new pattern of normal. It's hard to change a behavior. We know that you need to repeat the positive behavior between ten and 12,000 times in order to negate the negative behavior.
You mentioned before that this is sort of an epidemic. Do you think that this way of speaking will increase in the future or eventually go away?
It could go away. There's another phenomenon, the filler phenomenon with words such as like and yeah and actually. Those types of words that interject. They were very very popular, and they're still around. People perceive that as such a negative thing that they've become very cognizant of it. I'm hopeful that the vocal glottal fry will dissipate over time. But I think because a lot of celebrities and singers use this voice, and it's so popular in mainstream America and we're such a social-media-TV society, people are going to continue to have this reinforcement of this vocal behavior.
Who are the worst celebrity offenders?
Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian, and Ke$ha. Hands down. Those are my top offenders. If I could only get them in voice therapy! I've treated my fair share of celebrities, but they have not been them [laughs].
Would you suggest that parents and teachers try to discourage their kids and students from talking like this?
I think information is the key here. It's hard to tell someone what to do, especially with something like voice. It's your identity. The way you speak is how you're identified. But if this were my child, I would make her aware of what she's doing and tell her that the way she's using her voice can be quite damaging and could lead to larger medical problems and to be more mindful of it. I would help her identify it and not throw her into speech therapy right away. I would make her aware of it especially if she wants to be a career woman. There are a lot of industries like health care, law and education where that vocal pattern is frowned upon and could be perceived as a lack of knowledge, which of course is complete bullshit. But it's the perception. It's not reality, but we need to be careful of that.
Girlfriend: I'm glad I already have a job then! I think there are a lot of things about my voice that aren't caused by vocal fry. I understand I may have this specific thing but I also think I have many other vocal issues that are very annoying and cause people to perceive my voice as annoying without it necessarily being vocal fry.
Let me put my timer on. Can you take a deep breath and say Ahhh using your natural voice until you have no breath support left? Your Ahhh" is not singing. It's your natural voice. Ahhh. Say Ahhh until you have no more air left.
That's really your best? Try that again. Did you hear the glottal fry at the end?
Girlfriend: This is making me very nervous.
I'm not here to make you nervous, just to help you. Try again. You can get a little loud. It's OK.
You didn't go into vocal fry, but you did have vocal instability. That was six seconds. The minimum average is 16 to 40 seconds. And your voice gave out at four seconds, and then six seconds. Your particular challenge is that you're not using sufficient air support. And if you don't have air, you can't create voice. If you don't use proper air you're speaking on residual air, and trying to talk when there is no air creating that glottal wave. You are the perfect candidate for voice therapy! Would you like to come here? We'll treat you for free.
Girlfriend: Are you serious?
Yes, of course. I'll work with you a little bit but I'll also hook you up with my dear friend and colleague Marlene who's an opera singer and also specializes in this area. It's very hard to get a hold of me. We will treat you here for free.
Girlfriend: So my voice is that bad?
I'm not judging you. I'm hearing things as a medical professional, and you don't have the proper respiratory support to sustain the type of communication that you're trying to do. You probably have postnasal drip and allergies?
Girlfriend: Yes, I do.
It's all about cohesive and proper medical managing. Despite not being an MD, we can guide you on proper uses of allergy medicines and all that because all of these things impact that anatomical process. And then when you speak on residual air on top of all that, it just leads to this snowball effect. Prolonged use of vocal fry could very well lead to a more serious pathology with polyps, ulcerations, nodules, edema, etc. These are some realities of the prolonged use of vocal fry.
Girlfriend: So you don't think that vocal fry is my primary problem?
I think it's part of a larger vocal hyperfunction—overuse. Most New Yorkers talk far more given our industry and social climate than other large cities. I think we could see a pretty significant change in four to six weeks if you're on program and you stick to the recommendations. You can only lead a horse to water. People aren't dying here, so the patients who make a positive change are those who are really motivated by it. People who are motivated can do a lot of good in a short amount of time with the right person. I'll give you my email address.
[Success. My girlfriend has plans to set up an appointment, and we're looking forward to a fry-free courtship.]