Is This Normal? “I Can’t Stand the Sound of My Voice”
As a journalist, I’m often subjected to the sound of my own voice — in recordings of interviews, in videos, in podcasts. I can’t stand it. My mind, body and soul revolt against the whiny, grating voice that happens to be me speaking. How do people ever listen to me, like me, love me, with the annoyance that spills out of my mouth every day?
Not being able to stand the sound of your own voice is a phenomenon called “voice confrontation”: when we hear our own voice through an external source, we hear it differently from how it sounds to us in our heads, which leads to disillusionment. When we talk, we’re hearing our own voice from two sources — externally, as the sound travels through the air and is perceived by our ears, and internally, through sound vibrations in our bones. What we hear when we talk is a lower-frequency sound (lower-pitched voice), as it vibrates through the skull. The sound traverses our sinuses, through the empty space in our heads, and through the middle part of our ears, Martin Birchall, professor of laryngology (the study of the larynx, or voice box) at University College London, told Time. In situations when we’re confronted with a recording of our voice, the air-conducted-only version of it is much higher — and to my horror, is what everybody around me hears. While it’s not the high-pitched quality of the voice that induces horror, it’s the intense discomfort that comes with the new-ness of it, because my voice doesn’t sound like I expect it to.
“I would speculate that the fact that we sound more high-pitched than what we think we should leads us to cringe as it doesn’t meet our internal expectations; our voice plays a massive role in forming our identity and I guess no one likes to realize that you’re not really who you think you are,” Dr. Silke Paulmann, a psychologist at the University of Essex, told The Guardian. One study found that when participants listened to recordings of their own voice, only 38% were able to recognize their voice immediately, while others either took time or weren’t able to tell their own voice from recordings of others’. “We get used to the sound we hear in our heads, even though it’s a distorted sound. We build our self-image and vocal self image around what we hear, rather than the reality,” Birchall told Time.
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Therefore, it’s not just our voices we’re disillusioned by, it’s also our identity. In 1966, study researchers Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey concluded that we’re also taken aback by “extra-linguistic cues” when we hear our voice in recordings — such as any inadvertent display of feeling we didn’t intend to relay through our voice. “The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed,” according to the researchers, as reported by The Guardian. These inadvertent expressions could include sadness, levels of anxiety, or any other emotion — which we may not have intended our voice to reflect, but finding out that those emotions were communicated anyway makes us disillusioned, untrusting and defensive — hence the cringe.
“When we hear our isolated voice which is disembodied from the rest of our behavior, we may go through the automatic process of evaluating our own voice in the way we routinely do with other people’s voices,” Marc Pell, a neuroscientist at McGill University, told The Guardian. “I think we then compare our own impressions of the voice to how other people must evaluate us socially, leading many people to be upset or dissatisfied with the way they sound because the impressions formed do not fit with social traits they wish to project.”
Another study showed bilingual people who learned a second language after the age of 16 showed greater disillusionment with their voices — while speaking both in their native and learned languages — than people who only spoke one language. Here, researchers concluded the discomfort arises from learned social and cultural behavior, which perhaps lends more uncertainty, and therefore more scrutiny, to the personality that is conveyed through voice.
As a trilingual person who scrutinizes herself incessantly and is uncertain about most things in life, my own voice confrontation doesn’t surprise me anymore. In my research, I also came across several articles about voice improvement — tips and tricks to ‘improve’ one’s voice if one hates it. To which, I say: no, thank you. I’ll deal with the winces, because hating the sound of my voice is not the fault of my voice — it’s totally normal.