Is Bashing Clinton’s Voice Sparked By Nature Or Nurture?


By Diane Rubino. 

Hillary Clinton’s voice is a magnet for criticism. Every characteristic—accent, authenticity, pacing, pitch, tone, and volume—has been examined and found wanting. The pejorative “nagging” has dogged Ms. Clinton for years.

Although Donald Trump’s yuugge voice is often parodied, critiques seem to be more often a reaction to content rather than traits.

One obvious response to negative opinions of Clinton’s voice is that the evaluations—and evaluators—are sexist.

But I’ve noted mysterious trends in my own speech. My voice automatically gets higher when I speak to children and pets. It also drops involuntarily when I’m angry. I’ve heard a similar range in men and noticed the squeaky bark of a tiny dog morph into a deep growl.

NATURE. When it comes to pitch, i.e. whether a voice is considered “high” or  “low/deep,” there are unseen forces at work.

Studies of men and women show that, like me, people across continents and languages use a higher pitch for babies and pets without consciousness. (Burnham et al, 2002)

Politics aside, then, Hillary’s relatively higher pitch is playing against type when she discusses policy and diplomacy rather than time out and kibbles.

Hormones also play a key role in relation to pitch and the perception of it. Saliva tests show that the deeper a man’s voice, the more testosterone he has. Similar studies in women show they’re more likely to prefer deeper voices when they’re at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycle. (Pisansky et al, 2014)

NUTURE. So part of the criticism of Clinton’s voice is rooted in biology. But humans are rarely content to leave nature alone. We need to add our own spin, and this begins early in life.

Baby Hillary, for example, probably got less attention when she cried than Baby Donald. Though the pitch of an infant’s wail is gender-neutral, study participants projected masculinity and femininity onto crying 3-month-olds. Men in the study labeled lower-pitched cries “masculine” and assumed that these sobs were more likely to be a sign of discomfort than “feminine” crying. (Reby et al, 2016)

Finally, in an increasingly violent world, it’s notable that perceptions of trustworthiness and dominance are associated with masculine vocal features, such as low pitch. The higher, feminine pitch, however, is perceived to be friendly and non-threatening. (Knowles and Little, 2016) This interpretation could make a difference to fearful “Let’s make America safe again” voters.

MASH UP. So the answer to the title’s query is that nature and nurture impact the pitch we use and our perceptions of this vocal trait. It’s the mash up between the two that fuels Hillary voice bashing.

So what’s the enlightened Philosophy of Shaving reader to do? Be controlled by unconscious forces? As if.

I’ve listed a few ideas as a springboard for thinking differently.

  • Become aware of your own vocal variety, without judging and trying to change it.
  • Note the pitch of the voices around you and the ensuing reactions.
  • With awareness raised, be hopeful. Each of us has been “trained” to override some of our instincts.

Though sexist ideas about pitch are deeply and hormonally rooted, you can break away from the pack.

What are your thoughts?

Diane Rubino is an activist, New York University instructor, and applied communications professional who seeks to make the world more healthy and humane. Learn More.