"Dick voice": Annoying voices and gender stereotypes

« previous post | next post »

During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a lot of negative commentary about Hillary Clinton's voice. Some examples from across the political spectrum are compiled and discussed here, and even-the-liberal-The-Atlantic published on "The Science Behind Hating Hillary's Voice".  Since Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump pretty much got a pass for vocal characteristics analogous to Hillary's, it was suggested more than once that the criticism was sexist, most creatively in this reprise of Shout by Dominique Salerno and Laura Hankin.

In fact, considering how many people have criticized aspects of Donald Trump's speaking style, it's striking that there's been so little discussion of his tone of voice as opposed to his rhetorical style and content. But this balance is distinctly different for his senior advisor Stephen Miller — see Kali Holloway, "What makes Trump advisor Stephen Miller so unlikeable?", Salon 2/15/2017. That article leads with a collection of video clips from Miller's recent interviews — here's the audio track:

Holloway's evaluation of those clips is strongly negative, and also distinctly gendered:

If you caught any of those appearances, you may have noticed a few Miller trademark gestures. Empty, reptilian eyes scanning left to right over cue cards. A pouty mouth delivering each insane untruth. And a voice that sounds like every hyper-unlikable, pompous, joyless, self-important authority-on-everything you’ve ever met. Or as Katie McDonough of Fusion puts it, “he has the voice of someone who is a dick.”

The link takes us to Katie McDonough, "Why does Stephen Miller sound like such a dick? A voice coach explains", Fusion 2/13/2017:

Stephen Miller sounds like a dick.  

A person could mean this in the ad hominem sense, surely. He is one of the architects behind the xenophobic and exceedingly dickish Muslim ban that was recently blocked by a federal appeals court. As a high school student, he wrote dick letters to the editor that complained about receiving class communications in English and Spanish. In college, he was a dick about racism and sexism and gave his column in the student newspaper the very dick name, “Miller Time.”  

But Miller also sounds like a dick in a more direct sense. He has the voice of someone who is a dick.

[…]

Watching Miller, a stranger, I was struck by the familiarity of his dick voice. I know this dick, I thought.  

Curious if there is such a thing as a quantifiable dick voice, I reached out to John West, the head of speech coaching at New York Speech Coaching, to get some perspective. West works with CEOs, hedge fund managers, politicians, and actors to help them become more effective speakers. He also, presumably, helps them to not sound like dicks.

McDonough's voice-coach interviewee is somewhat evasive on the gender-stereotype issue:

Q: We talk about vocal fry and upspeak as these ways of critiquing women’s speech and voices, but is “asshole voice” a differently gendered version of this?  

A: And if we were at all concerned about what will we can call this type, thank you for putting that to rest. I think we have landed on this now and I look forward to you making this the next big thing in vocal pop culture.  

Yes, asshole speak, sure. I think that, again, a big part of what we espouse and try to dissect as speech professionals is where things fall on the gamut. As soon as we try to reduce things to black and white we do get ourselves locked into our biases.

You can read the whole interview and see what you think.

My own impression is that the expert's comments are mostly subjective ones, which may be correct, but as a whole leave the quantification of "dick voice" (or the less implicitly gendered "asshole voice") as a task for speech scientists of the future. There's been a lot of work on "sentiment analysis" or "emotion classification" from voice (and video), but remarkably little on personality projection. Maybe a workshop at Interspeech 2018?

Miller's tone (and content as well) have engendered similarly strong reactions elsewhere. Monday morning on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were temporarily speechless after presenting a couple of minutes of Miller Sunday-show highlights:

In the past, I've been skeptical about the gender association of phenomena like uptalk and vocal fry — or at least concerned about the lack of evidence and the danger of confirmation bias for stereotypes. And I'll take the same attitude towards "asshole voice", whatever exactly it is — let's wait until we have some evidence before concluding that it's a guy thing rather than an asshole thing.


For more of Stephen Miller in context, here's his full 2/12/2017 appearance on Fox:


Update — Gail Collins writes that Stephen Miller "sounds like a really unpopular college sophomore complaining about his grades", linking to this ABC News interview:


ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos



41 Comments »

  1. Annoying voices and gender stereotypes • Zhi Chinese said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 7:38 am

    […] Source: Language Permalink: Annoying voices and gender stereotypes […]

  2. NSBK said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 8:46 am

    I'll put myself out here as an anectodal balance — I am not sure that I find his voice particularly annoying or upsetting just by itself. I disagree heavily with his apparent political views, and perhaps he looks a bit "reptilian", but his voice is not really such a problem for me.

    Then again, I live somewhat under a rock and didn't know who this guy was or what he looked or sounded like until reading this post. Maybe others who were primed by his politics and pouty face before hearing his voice are more likely to find him disagreeable on one more level.

  3. Scott McClure said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    I'm in agreement with NSBK: I don't care for the way he looks and I *really* don't care for the content of what he's saying. But I'm not able to pick out anything unusual or objectionable about the quality of his voice.

  4. David L said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    I disagree with the previous two comments. I know who Miller is but I'd never heard him speak before. Listening to the recordings without any visuals, I find his delivery distinctly off-putting. There's a slightly nasal quality, which doesn't help, but the main thing is the insistent rhythm and intonation, and the fact that he never seems to stop for breath.

    He sounds like an obnoxious customer ordering breakfast at the diner:

    "I want two FRIED EGGS, I can't stand them SCRAMBLED, and two slices of WHOLEWHEAT TOAST, and I only want ORANGE MARMALADE, don't you dare give me any STRAWBERRY JAM, and I need COFFEE, definitely not DECAF, and make it STRONG, I can't stand WEAK COFFEE…"

  5. JB said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    Reminds me of Peter Griffin from 'Family Guy', those annoying tones.

  6. GH said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    In most of the clips (excepting perhaps the last one) I would describe his speaking style as extremely emphatic or insistent. That could easily be perceived as dickish depending on the context or on the content of what he was saying (which I more or less tuned out), though I'm not convinced it's inherently so.

    Incidentally, in one of many discussions of media bias and political orientations over social media in the last year or so, the question of where The Atlantic is positioned came up, and most of us agreed that it is centrist or non-partisan, rather than actually liberal. 2016 was only the third time in its history that it endorsed a political candidate, and that primarily as a rejection of Trump.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:42 am

    One semi-empirical way you could investigate this phenomenon would be by picking a bunch of characters in well-known movies that are "hyper-unlikable, pompous, joyless, self-important authority-on-everything" etc. I.e., characters where one can safely assume the actor was told by the director "we want the audience's reaction to you to be 'that guy is such a dick.'" One could then do some sort of fancy computerized analysis of audio of those characters to look for any distinctive patterns of intonation, pronunciation etc not shared with less dickish male characters in comparable movies. That might not tell you anything about what dickish-in-the-real-world people sound like, but would at least help establish if there's an existing Hollywood/popular-culture stereotype of what dickish characters ought to sound like. One should be prepared for the possibility that there isn't, and the actors rely on cues other than distinctive speech patterns (maybe even what they say rather than how they say it?) to make sure the audience understands what dicks the characters are supposed to be.

  8. Zeppelin said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:44 am

    For me the main squick is in the way he modulates his voice to affect emotion (mainly outrage, in this case), but doesn't actually show any on his face. Just listening to the audio I would expect him to be gesturing and emoting a lot, but he barely raises his eyebrows. It makes him come across like a not-very-bright sociopath.
    I don't enjoy his vocal style, but I don't find it remarkably off-putting on its own. It's the combined performance that does it for me.

  9. CL Thornett said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    I am trying to analyse his voice purely as a voice, and drawing in large part on experience of singers and being in choirs. He doesn't have good vocal support or breath control, and for a big man, his voice lacks resonance. As has been noted here, he doesn't have as much variation in pitch as some speakers. He may therefore shout a lot to compensate, or at least he often sounds as though he is shouting, although allowance should be made for the different style of campaign speeches. Allowance might also be made for vocal cords being overworked during a campaign (and Clinton's voice also sounded strained by the end), but from what I have heard, his normal speaking voice often sounds strained, as though he has overused his voice or has a cold. A vocal coach could explain this in more technical terms than I can.

  10. CL Thornett said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    Sorry, I realise I didn't make it clear that I was referring to Trump's voice. I haven't heard Miller enough to try to analyse his voice, but from the clips he doesn't seem to have the same issues of breath control or vocal support, and my first reaction is that it is his manner of speaking–pacing, stress, and so on, rather than his voice itself.

  11. David L said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 11:13 am

    @J.W. Brewer: I had a similar thought. If you wanted to conduct a workshop on what makes a voice or style of delivery dickish, assholian, pompous, and conversely what makes someone sound empathetic, kind, thoughtful, hire a bunch of actors and ask them to deliver lines in the desired manner. And as well as conducting whatever quantitative analysis you can think of, ask the actors what they think are the key characteristics of certain kinds of speech, and how important facial expression and body language are.

  12. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    The word that occurs to me for Miller's style is "hectoring."

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 11:18 am

    Miller seems to have no sense of modulation. His voice timbre, speed and volume never change. He is close enough to being an automaton to fall into the uncanny valley because we don't know quite how to classify him. I expected him to close his remarks with "Press 3 to repeat this message."

  14. charlotte said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 11:27 am

    In conducting the actors playing assholes experiment, it would be interesting to gender the audience. If "asshole" speech patterns exist, are they most often used when speaking to women (or possibly other "inferiors," which in Miller's case might be the plain people of America.

  15. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

    It's difficult to separate tone from content, of course, and the content alone in this case is pretty appalling. The qualities that people are objecting to come through pretty clearly just in the words. There is something irritating in the constant overemphasis, though; he sounds like someone who has no interest in what anyone else thinks, or in actually considering what he's saying. I imagine that if I heard someone speaking this way and saying things that I happened to agree with, I would write him off as a bore and avoid him as much as I could.

  16. Sergey said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

    My etalon of "dick voice" would be Obama. He sounds extremely condescending and capricious.

    Hillary is different, her mimic and voice are like she is not quite human, deep in the "uncanny valley". The broken mimic is perhaps the result of too many plastic surgeries but I'm not sure what she's done to the voice.

  17. Bill Benzon said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    The word that occurs to me for Miller's style is "hectoring."

    Yes.

  18. Chandra said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

    I listened to the audio and tried to imagine what I would assume about the content if I heard the same voice speaking a language I didn't know. To me, there's something about the intonation or cadence or some other quality of his voice that screams smugness and entitlement, like a know-it-all kid in grade school who is lording it over the other students. I'm not able to pin down exactly what is giving me that impression, though.

  19. AntC said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    @Zeppelin For me the main squick is in the way he modulates his voice to affect emotion (mainly outrage, in this case), but doesn't actually show any on his face. Just listening to the audio I would expect him to be gesturing and emoting a lot, but he barely raises his eyebrows. It makes him come across like a not-very-bright sociopath.

    By the last clip above, somebody's coached him to act human and say hello. So there's a thin smile on the lips, but not a flicker on the lidded eyes. Yes sociopath is it. Nobody as young as 31 should be in a senior policy position anywhere.

  20. Geoff said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    We should distinguish the basic physiology of the voice from the emotions of the moment. You can't change the basic physiology any more than you can change your height or hair colour. Most of us are never going to pass the audition as newsreaders. No-one deserves to be mocked for their voice in that sense. In that sense I hear nothing out of the ordinary in his voice.
    After listening I see that people are mostly talking about the emotional colour. 'Hectoring' and 'in the uncanny valley' are right. I've never seen or heard this man before, and in the 12 Feb clip, after a while I honestly wondered for a second whether he was in fact a comedian spoofing a dull politician reading from an autocue (since he was so obviously reading from an autocue or reciting a script).

  21. GeorgeW said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

    "Hectoring." Yes, nailed it.

  22. Janelle B. said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

    I think a woman speaking in the same manner that Miller speaks would be called "shrill."

  23. Gwen Katz said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

    My etalon of "dick voice" would be Obama. He sounds extremely condescending and capricious.

    Hillary is different, her mimic and voice are like she is not quite human, deep in the "uncanny valley". The broken mimic is perhaps the result of too many plastic surgeries but I'm not sure what she's done to the voice.

    A dissertation's worth of race and gender baggage to unpack in four sentences.

  24. PLA said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    We need those excellent folk such as Julia Hirschberg and Didier Demolin who have tracked down what makes a speaker charismatic to apply the same methods to the other end of the vocal-impression continuum

  25. DaveK said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

    I've heard similar styles of delivery before–talking very quickly, so you give the impression of being articulate and don't give the interviewer a chance to interrupt, and putting in lots of random emphasis, so you sound less mechanical.
    However, combined with that alien-from-Planet-X stare, it seems like someone doing an impersonation of Christopher Walken on speed.

  26. ryan said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

    I think of both dick and asshole as describing someone aggressive and over the top. This guy's voice and tone are so weak as to make it seem he might reach a point where his voice gives out. I agree with DaveK – mechanical, alien – and with several others who mention variations on annoying. Maybe even insidious.

    But annoying people aren't dicks. To be a dick, you have to be threatening. Trump is a dick. Miller is a mosquito.

  27. Chad Nilep said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

    Phonetics or sociophonetics is very much not my strong suit, but I'll hazard a hypothesis. What makes Miller's voice sound "dick" or "asshole" is some combination of phrase-final intonation curves (I especially notice the non-terminal rise-fall e.g. on "anywhere, anytime", which I think is accompanied by higher volume) and rate of syllables (or feet?) per second.

    This sample reminds me of what Conversation Analysts call "rush-through" — increasing speed and raising pitch to "hold the floor" or signal that the speaker wants to continue speaking.

    Perhaps it gets secondarily gendered thanks to associations with men holding the floor?

  28. Kiwanda said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 12:50 am

    Miller sounds like he's reading from notes. Other than that, and the execrable content of his speech, and a certain resemblance to Vladimir Putin, he doesn't make much of an impression.

    It's curious, if meaningless, that if you just pitch-shift Trump's speech up a bit, he sounds surprisingly close to Sassy Trump.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 10:19 am

    Sergey: You want "standard", not "etalon". ("Etalon" comes from the French word for "standard", but as far as I can tell, the only meaning in English is a reflecting plate used in Fabry-Pérot interferometry.) "Condescending" is probably what you mean, since a lot of people think Obama sounds condescending. However, I'm not sure you want "capricious"—are you saying that Obama sounds as if he makes decisions and changes them often for no good reason? And I'm sure "mimic" isn't the word you want. Since you mention plastic surgery, you must be talking about her face, but I don't know why you don't say "face". (A mimic is someone who imitates others.)

  30. Bloix said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    Miller talks as if he were addressing a crowd. Slow and loud, with exaggerated emphasis on important words. When you do this one-on-one, the listener feels like you think they're an idiot. It can be hard to get the tone right on TV when you're looking into a camera and at best there's a monitor with a little image of the interviewer (and sometimes not even that). If he had less of an abrasive, self-important (i.e. dickish) personality he might be more intuitive at it, but I expect a big part of his problem is lack of experience.

  31. Craig said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

    Maybe Sergey was confusing mimic for mien.

  32. Arthur Baker said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

    He has his script worked out and rehearsed in advance, and his technique, as with so many politicians and their spokespeople, seems to be, when detail is questioned, simply to churn out the mantra one more time. "Hectoring" is a description I can live with.

  33. PickeringPast said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 6:35 pm

    Sergey's writing style (correct me if there's a more appropriate word) reminds me of those I've read written by paid Russian trolls.

  34. Brett said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

    @PickeringPast: I agree. Sergey's comment just screams "keyboard brigade" to me.

  35. V said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 3:41 am

    Jerry Friedman: Sergey is trying to sound smart by using loanwords in Russian, but he doesn't know they don't mean the same thing in English. Etalon, in Russian, means something like prototypical example; and I'm guessing by "mimic" he means мимика (from μιμιχοζ, by way of Bulgarian), which means something like facial expression, but with a negative connotation, implying being non-sincere, or a synonym for grimace.

  36. Gwen Katz said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 3:55 am

    Good observations about Sergey. Did you guys see the theory that @roguepotusstaff is a Russian account? It used the misspellings "vakay" and "esk," as well as the distinctly non-American (at least where I am) slur "muzzie." (The original thread was here but it's since been protected.)

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    V: Thanks for explaining those strange words in Sergey's comment.

  38. James Kabala said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    If Sergey really is a Russian, it seems surprising that he would blow his cover by openly using a Russian name. (Maybe even his real name?)

    Count me as another who knows who Miller is, but never heard him speak before, and does not find his voice very objectionable. The buildup led me to expect a very different type of voice.

  39. V said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

    Gwen Katz: "muzzie" is probably a reflex of "muslim" which is a slang islamophobic slur, which partially relies on it being the common English term for a Muslim, sometimes shortened to "Musli", as in muesli, it being a "western tolerant liberal fag" ("liberast" — liberal+pederast, "tolerast" — tolerant+pederast, pederast itself a slur for gay men) thing to eat.

    James Kabala: A lot of Russian fascists are genuinely buying into the propaganda and might not feel the need to disguise the fact that they're Russian.

  40. Gwen Katz said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 1:53 am

    Gwen Katz: "muzzie" is probably a reflex of "muslim" which is a slang islamophobic slur, which partially relies on it being the common English term for a Muslim

    Yes, thank you. I didn't ask for a definition, I noted that it was a distinctly non-American word–indeed, going by Google trends, it was essentially nonexistent except when @RoguePOTUSStaff used it on January 30. (They claim it's a quote from Trump, and if so, it's surely the first time he's ever been documented using that word.)

  41. エリック・ビニール said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 2:52 am

    I haven’t been following politics much but I heard someone (Bill Maher?) remark that Stephen Miller sounds like the white guy voice black comedians do when they’re making fun of how white people talk.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment