Listening to your own voice

July 15, 2018 0 Comments

I have a memory of making a cassette recording of my granny, on one of our summer visits to Ayr in the 1960s, reciting a poem by Robert Burns. Burns was born and brought up in Alloway, just down the road, and Granny had a natural feel for his language and his verse, and she had a lot of it by heart. But when we replayed the recording, she fled the room. She couldn’t bear to hear her own voice.

My mother had exactly the same phobia, and so do I. So do some people who use their voices to make a living, like sound journalists, voice-over artists and even some actors, like John Malkovich. But it seems there’s nothing genetic about it. A recent article by a neuroscientist, Philip Jaekl, points out that a dislike of hearing your own voice played back to you is very common. The saying ‘he likes the sound of his own voice’ may be confined to politicians, actors and professional egotists. There’s a name in the literature for the condition, ‘voice confrontation’.

Jaekl reports that there’s a common, physiological ‘explanation’ of why we dislike our own voice. When we hear our own speech directly, as we speak, we hear it not just across empty air but also through the medium of flesh, and of bone, which adds the low frequencies that seem (to ourselves) to give the voice a pleasing all-roundness. We’re surprised to discover, when we replay recordings of ourselves, that our voice lacks these lower tones. It sounds tinny and Micky Mouse-like, and not at all as we imagine it to be when we’re speaking.

But this on its own can’t account for the complete discomfort we feel. There must be more to it. Jaekl quotes earlier research that points to the role of the non-linguistic content of our recorded speech. Its expressive qualities seem to reveal – in a distressingly obvious way, we imagine – our states of mind at the time: anxiety, sadness, anger or whatever. These cues, we’re sure, were not ones we intended to display at the time, and we feel shocked that they seem so overt to our listeners. (Interestingly, a later study by the same researchers found that bilingual people who learned a second language after the age of sixteen feel even more alarmed than others at hearing their voice speaking their mother tongue.)

This theory, or something like it, seems to me a much better explanation of how uncomfortable I feel about my voice. The dissociation between how you assume you present yourself to other people aurally and how (you think) you actually do can be painful. No matter that you may be wrong. That is, people may not actually pick up all the expressive resonances in your voice that you feel must be there. As Jaekl says, ‘we tend not to be critical of other people’s voices’, and just take it for granted that your voice is your voice without analysing it for every nuance of expressive meaning that may come with it.

There’s an analogy with the way you react to seeing photos or moving images of yourself. Again the reaction may be negative, and often in a blanket way. My mother wouldn’t even look at photos of herself, let alone concede that the occasional one might be a fair or attractive one. The point is that, however carefully we may pose ourselves or wear our best smile before the camera, we know that we never have anything like complete control over the images we present to it. And we soon start to imagine how other people may respond on seeing them. They too, we think, are bound to scrutinize each picture to pick on wrinkles, spots and lop-sided grins.

It’s this combination of lack of control over our aural and visual appearance and extreme self-consciousness about their possible reception by other people, I think, that accounts for the revulsion we often feel at these kinds of self-image.

Curiously, when we feel we’ve much more control about how we present ourselves to the world, the problem melts away. I’m referring especially to the written world. Many people seem to have very little reservation, especially in the social networking age, about baring themselves in public verbally. On the contrary we’re inclined to be much less self-critical about our writings, and about how people will react to them. I’d go even further and say – of myself, at least – that there’s a tendency to think that your words are of much better quality than they actually are, or at least better that how others assess them. In truth we’d all benefit from a good ‘editor’ who can alert us to our linguistic and stylistic faults.

There’s one other aspect of the ‘horror of the voice’ that’s worth a mention, the fact that the voice removed from its producing body (as in a sound recording) and even from its words, can be deeply alienating. In Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of darkness, the appalling anti-hero Mr Kurtz is reduced in the end to no more than a voice. His voice is dissociated from its words and their meaning, and almost from his own dying body:

I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice. …

I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me. Oh, yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices, voices—even the girl herself—now— …

… Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last.

In case you ask, I didn’t preserve that recording of Granny reciting Robert Burns. More’s the pity.

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