Children’s voices

When I was in kindergarden my parents bought one of those new fangled answering machines. After tinkering with the controls my parents handed me a script and went over it with me a few time. So it was that my cherubic 6 year old voice was the outgoing message on that answering machine until I was a teenager and my mom signed us up for voice mail.

In fifth grade one day I got sick at school and the school secretary called my house to let my parents know I needed to be picked up. No one answered the phone and she reported back to me that she recognized my voice on the answering machine. I was indignantly mortified that as an 11 year old (practically an adult!) I still sounded like a five year old.

A few years ago I was woken from a nap by the phone. I was super tired (hence the nap) because it was only a few months after my second child was born. When I picked up the phone and said hello the voice on the other end said “Is your mom there?” I paused for a few moments wondering why this woman was asking about my mom (remember I just woke up from a nap) before I realized that she thought I was a kid and was wanting to speak to an adult. I put on my business voice and said “I’m 24, my mom doesn’t live here.”

While my 11 year old self’s consternation at sounding like a 5 year old may have been slightly premature it wasn’t out of place. My voice never got much deeper and I still have a rather child like voice.

Some women use a soft, high-pitched voice as affectation; not me, that is what I actually sound like. When people gripe about Primary Voice, or Relief Society Voice I feel conflicted. Yes, extreme performances of femininity to meet cultural expectation of how women are allowed to be is bad, and annoying and doesn’t do much to help anyone take women’s words more seriously. However automatically taking women who sound like that less seriously smacks of giving more credit to masculine things simply because ‘adult’ or ‘serious’ or ‘credible’ is defined as ‘more masculine.’ The trouble appears when trying to determine when that high pitched voice is put on for show and when it is the real voice of an adult woman. Women shouldn’t have to try to speak more like men to be given credit as adults- and the pitch of a voice shouldn’t determine if it is worth listening to or not.

If Primary Voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you that’s fine. I prefer cellos to violins for similar reasons. I think though, we should make sure to read those talks afterwards before deciding that that person’s words aren’t worth listening to.

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.


  1. To me the “Primary voice” isn’t so much about pitch as it is about more subtle things like inflection. It’s hard to describe – pitch is part of it, but definitely not all. High pitch isn’t such a put-off to me as is the other attributes of the Primary voice, and I do think it’s a put-on for most women who have/use it. My sister in law totally has the Primary voice much of the time. But when she gets riled up her voice sounds much more normal (not that I can define normal, it just sounds more…normal). I think the normal sounding voice is her real voice, because she uses it at times when she’s too distracted to keep up an act.

    Women with truly higher pitched voices are rather rare, I think – definitely on the tail end of the bell curve. But that doesn’t mean they’re not taken seriously – take Sarah Vowell for instance. Her voice passed for a kid’s in The Incredibles, but I think people still take her seriously.

    So I agree pitch doesn’t make a voice worth listening to or not. But I admit I hear that Primary voice in GC and have trouble taking the speaker seriously because they can’t ALL really have voices that high. So what are they trying to communicate by using that childlike voice? Probably nothing I’d take seriously.

  2. I think The Primary Voice is more a function of content (vocabulary, sentence structure, nuance, substance) than it is pitch.

    My wife, though we have been married for 32 years, still gets the ‘can I speak to your mother?’ business, and she is even the stake primary president, but I can guarantee you nobody thinks she has The Primary Voice. It’s all about content.

  3. I can totally relate, Starfoxy. I’m 28 and sound like a kid on the phone. I’ve noticed that the pitch of my voice sometimes gets me taken less seriously as a result.

    I think accents also have an effect on how people’s words are perceived. I have what can only be described as a “valley girl” accent. (It’s strange, since I grew up in the Bay Area, not in LA, but most people I grew up around have that accent, too.) I’m sometimes treated as an airhead as a result. I know people with southern accents who are treated as if they are less intelligent due to their speech patterns.

  4. I agree that a primary voice is more about inflection and tone than pitch. My sister still songs like she’s five when she answers the phone. It’s quite funny because she’s an attorney.

  5. This is too funny. I have a very low pitched voice and I’d probably say that I get taken *too* seriously. πŸ™‚ It’s very hard for me to sound light hearted and when I hear myself recorded talking I cringe. Does anyone really like the sound of their own voice?

    I agree that tone and pitch should have less bearing than our actual messages and intentions, but that’s a tall order. I wonder what it is that led to such a collective interpretation. Was it the likes of Marilyn Monroe that painted a picture of a childish voice (was that even the way she would have talked had she not been famous)? Do most successful women in power (outside the church) have deeper voices or just a different way of talking? Interesting topic.

  6. I like your advice about reading the printed word before we make any final judgment about value. It isn’t just the false Voices attributed to women that can distract from the message — some of the men also read more interesting, more organized, more “something” than they sometimes sound live. But it’s undoubtedly the women who too often are dismissed in large part because of Voice.

  7. As a person who is guilty of making fun of primary voice and Relief Society voice (or what some of my Utah family call the East Bench clip), your post is making me reconsider and repent of my previous attacks on female speakers at General Conference. What great timing you have! What others say about content and inflection is often true as well, but you make an excellent point about reading the text.

    As a business woman who has had several male mentors, I think about voice a lot. If I sound like the men who have coached me, it often comes off as inappropriate and harsh (because my audiences expect me to be softer as a woman). So I’ve had to learn to say assertive things without sounding too masculine or too traditionally feminine. Speaking is an art – and just like art, it won’t please everyone.

  8. I’m not sure if this fits in the same category, but the voices I don’t much like are the “sugary sweet” ones; the ones that always have the “you’re special”, “isn’t that precious” in their sentences. It’s the kind of “voices” I hear a lot whenever I’m in SLC visiting my daughter. I think I can speak for all of my family members who visit Utah from Canada, that the “sugary sweet voices” sound terribly fake making it very hard to take those people seriously. Men don’t talk that way, so I have to wonder why the women do. I don’t understand why they would talk that way; it’s rather annoying.

  9. Great, Starfoxy, I couldn’t agree more. Every GC, the Bloggernacle just moans and groans about that horrible ol’ primary voice. But I’m often bewildered, just thinking…. “Uh… it sounded like a woman’s voice.” There’s of course often a healthy dollop of the fake sugary sweetness, but there no is no one more egregious at that than Thomas S. Monson, so applying it solely to female leaders is unfair. But I think you have a point – when that SAME level of fakeness is in men’s voices, people are willing to overlook it. Maybe that’s because our society takes men more seriously, or maybe it’s because we are exposed to men’s voices as spiritual mentors so much more often, that a woman speaking in the same pattern just seems off.

    I think that probably more than anything, “the voice” is brought on by nervousness associated with speaking in front of a huge worldwide audience, and a result of endless reciting of the speech and practicing how you want to say each word, to the point that you suck the life out of the whole thing.

    That said, I have a lower, more “serious-sounding” voice, and I can use it very effectively to get my point across or persuade other people. It’s dangerous, because I have quite a manipulative streak in me. πŸ™

  10. Arrgg…..Corktree mentioned Marilyn Monroe. That breathy little girl voice of her’s drives me crazy. I’d love to hear what she sounded like in her real life. I assume that voice was just part of her stage persona. I have to think that the little girl voice does undermine one’s impression of intelligence. It would make a great study to have different voices reading the same material and have people rank them in terms of intelligence. Maybe it’s been done. I just assume that Marilyn might not have been in the triple digits in terms of IQ. I did come across a study that showed that people assume that women with large breasts are less intelligent than small breasted women. I’d assume that the high little girl voice probably has the same effect. A bummer for those of us who have higher voices.

    • You know what’s interesting? When I googled to see if I could find any women who were known for their lower voices (to see what they were known FOR) all I could find was how people of both genders found those (men and women) with lower voices more attractive sexually. Interesting that Marilyn as a sex icon was the opposite.

      Also interesting – I would consider Barbara Thompson to have a lower voice, but she still uses the inflection and tones in her talks that I think we are characterizing as weak. I think what Nat said is probably right, that it’s a product of the speaking environment and we don’t recognize the same thing done by men as annoying or weak because we’re used to hearing men more in that context. I’m thinking if we saw a broader range of women it might not be quite the same.

  11. The first time I heard Susan Easton Black speak, I thought wow, she sounds like she is five years old! But after listening to her presentation for a little while, the power and depth of her words, I didn’t even notice the voice anymore. I think people get past the little girl voice pretty quick if the person really has something to say.

  12. I will admit that I didn’t go to the General Relief Society broadcast last night. I did have the excuse that I was a little sick, but sometimes hearing their voices does bug me. I think it’s a whole package, too. The flawless, modest suits and skirts they wear, their hair perfectly done, a string of pearls or perhaps a decorative pin…But I’m sure if I was called upon to speak in front of millions of people, I’d most likely get my hair done, too. Maybe the whole voice thing has something to do with portraying a feminine ideal – one that is always perfectly patient and loving. The Church leaders at the general level probably feel some pressure of upholding some sort of example that is as close to perfection as possible, at least in the public light like General Conference.
    I find that many male leaders often have thier words selected quite carefully too. With some of them, it sounds like they’ve selected thier words carefully with the Spirit, but other times, it’s seems to me to be more just pontificating a bit to make a story more interesting or something.
    I just get more out of reading the conference talks anyway. That way you can reread and really soak the messages in instead of just trying to understand all of it at once while it being recited by the speaker.

  13. As someone who has dealt with a speech impediment their whole life I completely understand the issue of, “the voice”. I have struggled with the after affects of a cleft palate for 46 years. A few weeks ago, the mother-in-law of one of my friends stated to me and I quote,”You sound funny, where are you from,” I really just wanted to slap her. Had she been seven years old she would have just come out and just made fun of me. Instead, she used her “adult voice” to clean up her mess up. I was still seething.

    I told my friend I thought her mother in law was a little to old to be questioning me on the sound of my voice. Had she wanted to know where I was from, she would have simply asked,” where are you from?” but, she didn’t ask me that question, she stated I sounded funny. Why does this matter, because, with speech comes power. Speech both verbal and written gives us power to communicate, People can and will be dismissive based on how we sound.

    At 46 years old, I was, and will continue to struggle with people who don’t like the sound of voice. At my last place of employment, I had a co-worker who flat out told me he hated hearing the sound of my voice on the other side of the wall and he would harass the s@@@ out of me because of it.

    This is why we need to be careful of the voice we use with children. Children can detect sincerity, they know when someone really loves them as oppose to someone who is just tolerating them. By using a fake voice, we are not teaching children that what they have to share verbally is worthwhile and substantive.

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