Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Sound of Your Voice

There's a little Muslim noodle restaurant near my apartment where I often go for dinner. The food is both tasty and inexpensive. But it's got another draw: the young girl (I assume the daughter of the proprietors), maybe about ten years old, who often helps out around the shop with taking orders and clearing tables. I like the way her voice sounds.

Before you recoil at my creepiness, allow me to point out that when you don't understand the local language, what people say doesn't really have an effect on your mood, but the quality of their voices and the way they speak suddenly become much more salient in that regard. And I've noticed that many voices in this city, especially those of women, tend to be quite shrill and sharp. Loud. Often nasally. If I'm tired, they strike me as impatient and judgemental. This impression may be bolstered by the public tirades I've seen various women spew at whatever man has been unfortunate enough to tick her off. Male voices tend to be less demanding of attention. They can be a bit gruff sounding, but they're quieter and less in-a-hurry. Perhaps they're just less in general - I don't seem to hear them as much as female voices.

This young girl at the noodle shop has a quiet voice. Not a shy one - she has no problem with eye contact or approaching strangers - , just a relaxed and pleasant one, one that doesn't command anything or betray annoyance with the ignorant laowai that still can't remember the word for the thing she wants to eat. She told me the wrong price for a dish once (I had thought it was inordinately cheap) and had to chase me down in the street to apologize and ask for more money. Even then, her voice was still soft and unflustered.

After a long day of performing in front of students, the prospect of finding a place to eat sometimes seems so taxing because I'll have to deal with people in busy restaurants and I've hit my introvert limit. But the halal noodle shop remains an option because it's pleasant there, especially if it's Soft Voice who takes my order. And I've never heard her parents barking at each other, either.

I'm not suggesting that everyone here is constantly snarling. The proprietress at another nearby restaurant that I've been to has the shrill and sharp voice I described earlier. She's also extremely friendly and is the only restaurant owner who has attempted conversation with me while I eat (The conversation mostly consisted of her trying to figure out how old I was and then telling everyone else who was in the restaurant) and graciously ignored that I was crying from all the spice I had asked for. She remembered me when I came back a second time and welcomed me with a friendly punch in the arm. So my impression of what a voice means depends a lot on my mood and on the behaviour that accompanies the voice; it's just that some voices I'm much more likely to respond to in a certain way than others.

It's made me wonder what my own voice sounds like. I mean, I can hear it, but how do people respond to it?

This semester I had about 300 university students to get to know, and barring a few really gung-ho and boisterous exceptions, most of them started off painfully shy in class. There's an image that came to mind whenever I was trying to pull words out of them: I'm straining against a rope that's tied to a large animal (a donkey or a cow or something... maybe a giant rock) that has gotten stuck and sunk into a bog. I'm trying to pull it out... good luck!

Partway through the semester, I came down sick on the weekend. I was back up on my feet well enough to go to work on Monday, but whenever I recover from being sick, my voice seems to go on holiday. It hadn't left me entirely on Monday, but I was concerned that it would, given how much I would be required to use it. Thus, in a deep whisper, I croaked to my classes that "This is as loud as my voice can go today, so come sit closer to the front." They always chuckled, but then they moved without complaint (usually they drag their feet about that kind of thing) and were respectful.

To my surprise, my quietest, most reticent classes seemed to come (tentatively) alive. They volunteered answers without me having to coax, plead, beg, or wait through an embarrassingly long silence. Their confidence and willingness to participate seemed to magically increase by, like, 20 or 30%. And it must have had to do with my voice, because my behaviour otherwise hadn't changed. Normally, I project. I want everyone to hear me. I don't yell or shout (I loathe yelling and shouting), and my words are typically warm and encouraging. Yet nevertheless, I believe that I must have been intimidating many of them with my volume.

I mentioned this to one of the senior teachers, a woman from London with a classroom voice as big as my own. "I know!" she exclaimed, "I tried that once. I lied to them about losing my voice just so I could bring the volume down. And they really responded well."

Though I can't simply speak quietly all the time when I've got twenty-something students spread out trying to hear me, I am grateful for the awareness of how my voice affects both their confidence and our rapport.

Within same-language groups, voice quality naturally receives less emphasis than words spoken. Though parents may remark on a tone that a child uses or people may mock public speakers for voice idiosyncrasies, I don't know that we often notice the effect that various voices actually have on us - or think about our own. As much as possible, I'd like my voice to be one that soothes and encourages, rather than exhausts and pushes away.

“It only takes one voice, at the right pitch, to start an avalanche.” Dianna Hardy