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When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me."
David Myers, The Pursuit of Happiness
When Philip awoke from the surgery, his first reaction was that he must not have died because he was aware. He could see and feel and hear things. And if he was alive, he would see his wife and children again. In a few days he would be back home, resting, perhaps lying in the sun. Life would resume.
But it wouldn't be his old life. For what Philip never really banked on was the fact that while he could still hear and understand what others said to him, there would be no more responding in kind. For when the surgeon removed his cancerous larynx, Philip's voice went with it. Forever.
They had discussed this in advance. It was mostly a blur now, but Philip could remember talking with several medical specialists, each telling him something about the operation and the recovery process. One had mentioned the voice part, but it really hadn't made sense. How can a surgeon take away your...your personality?
This book is about a loss of voice. But it is not about the kind that occurs when physical disease destroys the vocal organs of a single individual. Rather, what we will witness here is a new and pernicious kind of social devoicing -- manifested most specifically and painfully as a loss of opportunities for intimate talking. And it is creeping, soul by soul, through the entirety of progressive societies.
It is important that we understand the etiology as well as the effects of this vocal deficiency on our personal lives and culture. To do so we must cast a glance backwards in evolutionary time and consider the ways in which our ancestors may have benefited from the capacity to create and maintain sociality through vocalization. We will also look at how our own present-day alliances were built up by previous social interactions. And we will see how these alliances now elevate trust, confidence, and personal security -- resources that oxygenate the human psyche and enervate a range of cultural institutions. Before we plunge headlong into these issues, though, we need to think about the way personal identities are created and maintained.
Each of us cares how we are perceived and judged. It has never been otherwise. The earliest humanoid forms lived in small bands under precarious conditions. Food and other resources were scarce, and competitors were many. So were predators. Survival required cooperation. Early humans were thus heavily dependent on one another. To thrive, each of these social beings had to be able to recognize the other members of his small band, to read their intentions, learn their habits, and recall which owed, and which were owed, personal favors.
Who we are is conveyed by our possessions as well as our behaviors. Anthropologist Polly Wiessner learned a great deal about this in the 1970s while studying the !Kung, a hunting and gathering people living mostly in southern Angola, Botswana, and Namibia. She found that !Kung arrowheads displayed two kinds of personal information. One identified the language and possibly the dialect of the arrow maker, as well as the band to which he belonged. The other kind of information was about the man who made the arrow. These personal facts mattered to the !Kung, who reacted anxiously when Wiessner showed them some arrows of neighboring tribes. If they happened upon an animal that had been felled by one of these other arrows, tribe members said, they would worry because a stranger might be lurking about, one who might prefer their territory to his own.
Although Wiessner's immediate interest was projectile points, she drew attention to a larger generalization about self-presentation and public relations: competition between people accentuates differences in style. That's right -- style. Ordinarily one equates style with fashion, with clothing and jewelry. Most of us have closets with skirts and ties of a dated length and width, kitchen cupboards with fondue pots and blenders. Surely these artifacts of yesteryear convey little about who we truly are or ever were, reveal little more about our underlying motivations in living life as we do. But there is a deeper meaning and significance to style, and it flows from the urge we were hoping to satisfy -- to be understood in a particular way -- when we acquired our personal belongings.
We residents of progressive societies are superficially unlike the !Kung. Except for the odd archer, arrowheads play no role in our lives, nor do we manufacture the objects that we use. But we are authorities on socioeconomic stress, and we have at least as much need for style. So we buy distinctive identities, showing off our purchases when we put on our clothes, walk out the door of our residence, and drive away in our car.
Martin Clarke, a professor at Leeds University in England, has found that automobiles say a great deal about the image we are seeking. "Your car locates you in our socioeconomic system," said Professor Clarke. "If you know the car, you know the person." The windows and bumpers of automobiles may also broadcast our personal views and philosophy. Not long ago, two professors drove around suburban Washington, D.C., in an attempt to classify bumper stickers. The messages, they found, either expressed affection for athletic teams, radio stations, and universities, or attitudes toward social issues and politics. There were strong correlations between the racial profile and economic status of neighborhoods and the content of stickers on the cars that were parked there.
Some of the loudest personal broadcasts are expensive and therefore must be justified to ourselves and our friends. So we play mental games. We claim that our BMW, Rolex, and Montblanc "work better" when we drive, tell time, and sign our names, but in reality these objects are visual displays. They call attention to our existence, not just our nature. And the benefits are direct and immediate, because these displays are omnidirectional; even when others aren't looking, we still see ourselves using these things.
These things. Clothes, cars, and houses, like watches and pens, are acquisitions. They help us to be seen as a person who is sexy or daring or living well. But who is the underlying person who has these attributes? A car is unable to tell anyone that we are introspective; a house cannot disclose that we are young or witty. Clothing usually says little about our mood, which changes more often than we can dress ourselves. Cars cannot truthfully declare that we are educated or courteous. Things are thus powerful, but unreliably so, and that is their allure.
What there is to be known about us is transmissible, of course, and for this we owe a great debt -- not to objects that we purchase like a suit of clothes or manufacture like an arrowhead, but to something that comes into the world with us. Something that moves and behaves with us, reflecting where we've been, are at the moment, and might be seeking to go in the future. It adorns and dogs each of our articulate steps. This rich source of personal information is our voice.
The voice is often thought of as a vehicle for speech, and with good reason -- one is unlikely to win elocution awards by mouthing or whispering words. But the voice carries useful information all by itself, even when the mouth is relatively still, as in the sustained aaahs we produce for physicians or the uuuhs we utter while formulating our next thought. Even this motionless voice tells stories about us, many that we want told, some that we would prefer to keep private. The act of speaking, as we will see, gives up additional facts on its own.
As I will discuss, there are at least seven broadly different aspects of our selves -- most of them linked to what would otherwise be private experiences and personal secrets -- that are made public by our voices.
The Physical Self
When we use our voice, people acquire a great deal of information about us even if we would prefer that they did not. Most obviously, they learn about our physical nature. Listeners usually can guess from a voice on the telephone whether it belongs to a child or an adult, a male or a female, a young adult or a very old person. With some accuracy they can also tell whether a voice belongs to a large or a small person. This connection between body size and pitch is implicitly understood, and if the occasion requires, people may lower their pitch to seem bigger and more powerful than they really are. On the telephone an aging woman may raise her deepening pitch to avoid sounding like a man.
Although there are many connections between faces and voices, it is impossible to guess which go with which. A person can be, at one and the same time, euphonious and ugly. When leafing through a magazine, You may have come across a picture of a favorite radio broadcaster and were shocked to discover that a Paul Newman-sounding personality had the face of Ichabod Crane. Back in the fifties, some radio people couldn't make the transition to television, just as some silent film stars had to drop out of the acting profession when talkies came in.
When people talk, their voice is automatically influenced by feelings. And the voice conveys them. Not just anger and contempt, not merely fear and happiness, but sadness, surprise, love, astonishment, doubt, amusement, and indifference. Anxiety heightens breathiness and raises vocal pitch. Depression enhances nasal resonance. Shyness softens amplitude. joyfulness animates vocal pitch. Frightened talkers may select words that disguise their fear, but when listeners hear breathiness and elevated pitch, they perceive apprehension. The deceptive talker may say all the right words, but when they're uttered hesitantly or with unsteady gaze, watchful listeners become doubtful.
Emotions are conveyed through the actions of a central nervous system, the evolution of which began not thousands of years ago but millions. For this reason the voice of the squirrel monkey, a very distant cousin, and the human voice are activated from comparable areas of the brain. The areas are as deep as they are old. Dissociated as they are from the higher cortical areas where vocal images are consciously experienced, the resonances that say so much about our feelings cannot be described in words. Emotions thus creep into the voice without first consulting the conscious mind. The talker, cordoned off from the command center of his species' most expressive system, is unable either to access or convincingly manipulate its inner workings. Social talking thus has a heart of its own.
It's a heart that's hard to fake. In Stanislavski's school of "method acting," the thespians, unable to turn on tears mechanically, attempt to develop empathy for the person portrayed -- hoping this will trigger emotions "analogous to those required for the part" -- or bring to mind an extremely sad event from their own previous experience. Feelings associated with that experience are thereby aroused and are expressed more or less naturally.
The imperfect controllability of vocal communication is paradoxically responsible for its greatest benefits. Listeners do not merely need to hear the talker, they also need to interpret him. From their standpoint the value of social talking begins where the control of it wanes.
Emotional transparency benefits the talker, too, at least if he's honest. If a person carries his vocal cards too close to his vest, if people can't "read" him, they're unlikely to invest much time or energy in a relationship with him. They may even find it "spooky" to be around such a person. Transparency also directly helps the talker when, in monitoring his own voice, he discovers from affective cues embedded therein what he himself is feeling. He hears an "edge" to his voice even before he is able to conclude from other clues that he is "edgy."
How we look matters, too, of course, but our facial and bodily architecture are more stable than our moods. They vary little from day to day and certainly do not change between breakfast and lunch. But our voice and speech work differently. They freely fluctuate with emotional changes that occur in a single conversation, in the uttering of a single sentence or even midway through a word.
If we must acquaint ourselves with these properties of the voice, the learning curve is a short one. Within a few hours of birth the heart rate of neonatal chimpanzees is differentially affected by divergent cries of their species. And the effect cuts across primate groups. Human children and adults require no instruction to glean the emotional content from monkey vocalizations.
Emotional displays are among the first stimulations that humans experience. The young of our species receive their maiden exposure to vocal emotion several months before birth. In the uterus, despite noisy listening conditions, the lower frequencies of the mother's speech and song can be heard, even learned, by the fetus. These frequencies, as it happens, are saturated with the inks and dyes of human feeling.
The infant's own expression of emotion may begin almost this early. Nearly three months before its birth, the fetus begins to hear. When loud sounds occur near the mother's abdomen, ultrasound imaging reveals a telltale facial expression by the fetus, a clenching of its eyes. Prenatal emotion may also be expressed by a kick or, incredibly, a howl. Once, in the middle of a delivery, a Scottish obstetrician thought he heard the cries of a baby. They were heard, he later recalled, "by two doctors, three midwives, and the patient. All were startled, and the operator looked about the labour room in his incredulity, to make sure that a nurse had not carried in a baby." Moments later the cries were traced to the fetus, vocally empowered when membranes ruptured and air whooshed into the birth canal.
When we speak, we do much more than turn on our larynx. We pronounce words with a particular rhythm and rate of speed, and with a degree of articulatory force. These oral gestures embed additional information in the speaking voice. Fold these articulatory characteristics in with our seemingly inexhaustible supply of pitches and resonances, and the scene is set for a serious analytical challenge. Which of all the hums and buzzes reveals our true feelings, the ones that may even escape our own notice? The answer is that they all do to some extent, but studies indicate that emotions are revealed mainly by the lower frequences of the voice. These are the ones you hear when someone is speaking unintelligibly in an adjacent room. And with these lower sounds we can infer levity and sorrow from laughing and sobbing, even when words and thoughts are nowhere to be found.
In laboratories, too, electronic filtering of the upper frequencies of speech renders conversation unintelligible without obscuring the speakers' emotions. This tells us that the oral movements responsible for high-frequency "hissing" sounds such as s and sh -- important constituents of words -- convey more information about those words, hence thoughts, than feelings. By contrast, the deeper vocal resonances supplied by vocal chambers in our head and neck say a great deal about feelings. Evolution, in her wisdom, gave us a low-frequency band for emotions and gently laid speech across the top.
Cambridge psychologist Nicholas Humphrey claims that the stimulation arriving at our ears, eyes, and skin all combine to tell us who we are, and this sensory smorgasbord includes our own voice. If you have lived alone, you already know something about this, at least implicitly. On any given day you may have been unaware that you were beginning to feel a certain way until you talked for the first time. Then you heard the first clues in your voice, and suddenly you knew that you must be sad because you heard sadness, strident because you heard stridency. Just as sonar tells bats where they are in physical space, your own vocal feedback system tells you where you are in emotional space.
These sound-feeling relationships in the voice are not arbitrary and need not be learned. If you visit Istanbul, you will instantly recognize that a taxi driver is unhappy with his tip from the rush of speech that ensues, although you may not know a word of Turkish. Indeed, experiments reveal that even where language is perfectly comprehensible, listeners still consider tone of voice more reliable than words. If a speaker's tone conflicts with his words, listeners tend to believe the voice and doubt the words.
The voice tells many other things about people besides their physical and emotional nature. It helps answer a question about identity: which of all our friends and acquaintances is this person? Until we find out, we cannot know what to do or say. If you're like me, when you receive a letter, you skip to the end to establish authorship before seriously beginning to read it. If someone phones, your first priority is to identify the caller. If people physically approach from a distance, you look for familiar visual contours and perhaps a recognizable way of walking. If unseen, people may be identified by their smell, for better or worse, a feature that can now be measured in perceptual units called "olfs."
Our ability to distinguish and recall faces is almost limitless. If you went back for any of your high school reunions, you may have discovered this. In one study it was found that up to thirty-five years after graduation, alumni could still recognize over 90 percent of their former classmates regardless of the class size. This is why it is rare to mistake a stranger for an acquaintance; when you walk down the main street of an unfamiliar city, it is not with the expectation that you will be flooded with familiar faces that cannot be "placed."
Imagine living in a world in which you recognized no faces. Brain-damaged people with a condition known as prosopagnosia do precisely that. So do those with Capgras syndrome, an impairment in which the face recognition center in the cortex apparently becomes disconnected from the emotional association store in the underlying limbic system. This drives a wedge between the affected person and his relationships. Recently, two neuroscientists in San Diego, William Hirstein and Vilayanur Ramachandran, described a thirty-year-old Brazilian man who developed Capgras syndrome following a head injury. Since the old feelings of recognition were gone, the man thought all his friends were impostors. When shown photographs of himself, he thought that he was an impostor, too.
Our voice-recognition system isn't nearly as good. On the telephone we occasionally have to ask callers to identify themselves, but we recognize the same people when they stand before us. In one experiment, volunteers were unable to recognize more than 70 percent of famous Americans from two-second snippets of their voices, and they only had to mark the correct name on short lists. In a more appropriately designed study, one of the world's most eminent phoneticians, UCLA's Peter Ladefoged, was able to identify twenty-four of twenty-nine voices of personal friends and family members from half-minute speech samples. How the rest of us would do on such a task is anyone's guess, but voice identification usually falls well below face recognition ability. Of course, until recently at least, we have usually seen and heard those who spoke to us, and with the two sets of cues, we are usually able to identify people almost perfectly.
The police have long been interested in the identification of people from their voice. Unfortunately, the prospects of nabbing a criminal from audio recordings are not good. In The Acoustics of Crime, Harry Hollien, a voice scientist at the University of Florida, summarized the problem: "Simply put, we are not at all sure that you will always produce speech that is more like your own than it is like anyone else's, no matter how you talk, no matter how you feel, no matter what the speaking conditions."
Authorship even less naturally falls out of written language. Even discrimination of handwritten samples is difficult -- witness the trouble experts had with "Hitler's diaries" a few years ago. And if the author of typed samples wishes to remain anonymous, we're even more likely to be left in the dark. But we may be able to determine if it is the same person who wrote some other work, the creator of which we do know. In a recent book, Jill Farringdon offers a method of determining authorship that takes into account such verbal habits as the number of words in a sentence and the number that are short or begin with vowels. When combined in a single analysis, these measures produce a sort of linguistic fingerprint. A similar method was used by a professor at Vassar to unmask the anonymous author of Primary Colors, the critically acclaimed fictional account of the 1992 American presidential race. The analysis was reliably performed, but the person who was "fingered" denied authorship. Then an unrelated analysis showed that scribblings on the original manuscript matched the suspect's handwriting. Ensnared by the consistency of both his expository and cursive styles, the author finally confessed.
The Biographical Self
To fully understand the biographical person, we need to know where he is in social and cultural space. This requires that we mine the deposits of social class, education, and geography from the voice, extract the veins of group affiliation. We do this because in evolution, membership in a group was indispensable to survival. The benefits to our ancient ancestors, the hominids, would have included protection against predators, defense of resources, foraging efficiency, and improved care-giving opportunities -- benefits that also accrue to modern apes and monkeys.
Although the environmental playing field has shifted for us modern humans, the mere possibility of group exclusion provokes anxiety, a consequence we make every effort to prevent.
This is why one's standing within a group is so important. Social status is heavily dependent on verbal behavior. Members of any subgroup, whether a family or other natural class, develop ways of speaking that distinguish them from larger, potentially absorptive groups. In the United States, a particular affectation has spread from the teenagers of San Fernando Valley in California -- the inventors of "valley speak" -- to younger members of that set and to those who live elsewhere. In "uptalk" there is a tendency to raise the pitch of the voice at the end of declarative statements or to add "okay" with a rising tone, as in a question. This tends to convey self-doubt or a form of politeness, as if asking, "Do you understand what I'm saying," But of course widespread propagation will eventually kill present forms of uptalk and force valley speakers to come up with new ways of displaying their membership in the "in group."
The relevance of verbal behavior to group inclusion and, therefore, social status is freely recognized in most progressive societies. In My Dinner with Andre, the key figure in the film, Andre, observed that one of the reasons a director friend gave up the theater was that "he just thought that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was superfluous. We live in a world in which fathers or single people or artists are all trying to live up to someone's fantasy of how a father or a single person or an artist should look and behave." One of the goals of psychotherapy, according to psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, is to give patients "a more satisfactory life story," or get them to turn the page in the one they've been writing.
Ironically, the disposition to present or "show" one's self, seemingly an act of individuality, is usually supported by a deeper motivation to be accepted by a group. To be accepted one must talk, and do so in a way that pulls one closer to the group. The likely result is an inoffensive, almost content-free type of talk. It is a voice sample and therefore a personality sample, an audition for friendship.
If our own talking can help to make us, the talking of would-be detractors has the potential to break us. Laws have been passed specifically to prevent irresponsible talk. Fines and jail time await those who lower a person's position in business or the community with malicious gossip, a behavior outlawed by the statutes on slander.
The Psychological Self
When we speak, it is thoughts and words that consume our attention. Our intention may be to say something about our job, a garden we are thinking about planting, some problems experienced by our child, a business venture that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, or last summer's vacation. But the message taken from our remarks -- perhaps the only one that will be remembered six months later -- may be that we are ambitious, naive, insecure, or in possession of an overly inflated sense of our own worth. Thus, regardless of what we believe we are infusing into the stream of speech, what has effectively been said is what our listeners take away. "A glance, a few spoken words," said S. E. Asch a half-century ago, "are sufficient to tell us a story about a highly complex matter."
When we talk, our wish is usually to strike others as we appear to ourselves. Adolescent boys want to appear masterful and manly, and are therefore embarrassed by spontaneous breaks into falsetto voice. We feel compelled to apologize when we have "a frog in our throat," a stuffy nose, or laryngitis. Perhaps we're afraid listeners will think we've changed or are trying to change into the person we now sound like.
It is also true that the reactions we get from others reflect the person we sound like to them. Nearly a century ago, Charles Cooley said that we learn that we are humorous, trustworthy, or intelligent when others respond to us as though we had such traits. When we interact with others, we and they find out who we are at the same time. A steady stream of evaluative reactions over a period of years produces a stable, heavily layered self-concept.
As a speech and language pathologist, I occasionally did voice therapy. I discovered the tendency of some patients to cling to their voice even when it was completely wrong for their sex or body size, or for their age group or profession. It was still their voice, and although it hurt to vocalize as they did, they didn't want a clinician to take it away. The strength of this link between voice and self is revealed in an unlikely place -- the word "personality." It comes from the Latin word persona, which in ancient Roman theater referred to an actor's mask and specifically to the mouthpiece through which the sona, or sound, passed. Since the mask identified the character and his fixed facial emotion, the actors voice had total responsibility for mood variations and personality. Over time, the word persona came to mean the actor himself and eventually any person or "personality."
With this etymology there should be little wonder that voice quality influences personality judgments. Several years ago Miron Zuckerman and his associates at the University of Rochester reported that a group of college students with highly attractive voices had more pleasantly rated personalities than students with less attractive voices. As might be expected, they observed a similar effect for facial attractiveness, but the vocal effect was stronger. When personality is involved, a pretty voice is better than a pretty face.
Research in a different laboratory confirmed Zuckeman's findings and also revealed a sex difference. In vocally attractive males, the attributes of strength, assertiveness, and dominance are conveyed by the voice. In females, an attractive voice is associated with warmth, honesty, and kindness.
Talking is virtually the only way to send or receive information about our psychological self. To demonstrate our earnestness, friendliness, sincerity, and sense of humor, we have no choice but to talk. And these attributes will be revealed as much by how we look and sound while talking as by any factual information that we may convey with words.
Listeners want information about our honesty. In fact, there's a commercial market for it. A Voice Stress Analysis device is now being sold in London that rates the truth value of people's oral statements based on "micro tremors" in their voices. One prominent public relations executive, caught in an ostensible lie, averred in self-defense that "even machines make mistakes."
For years British television was reluctant to let viewers see the psychological self of controversial Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. They could watch him on television and hear his words, but the voice belonged to a "stunt speaker," a vocal stand-in supplied by the BBC. Broadcasters apparently feared that Adams's voice would be more inflamatory than his words and facial expressions.
When it comes to political campaigns, the candidates' personas are paramount. Many of the things that are said sound good enough, but we want to know if the aspirants mean what they say and if they'll still mean it in six months. We want to know if they share our values and will be steady and rational in a crisis. We thus ask the voice about the candidates' deeper values and character.
The impact of a person's looks while talking first became clear when John Kennedy debated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. Polls taken immediately afterward showed that Nixon had won in the opinion of those who heard the debates on the radio, and that Kennedy had won according to those who saw and heard the debates on television.
Self-display being so important, it is not surprising that candidates might wish to change theirs, but this can be a serious mistake. Jimmy Carter tried it by relocating the part in his hair. Gerald Ford tried it by switching from a two- to a three-piece suit. These alterations raised questions that a sitting president shouldn't have to answer.
Some years before he ran for president in 1983, Gary Hart did some switching. For one thing, he listed his birth date as November 28, 1937, even though he was born one year earlier. Further digging revealed that he had also changed his surname from Hartpence to Hart. His inability to explain these events later made people suspicious of his character. Who is he really, they wondered. What is he hiding? Newsweek called him secretive and mysterious. Then, disastrously for the senator, it was discovered that he had also changed his signature. That was the penultimate straw. People were not surprised when newspaper reporters caught Hart in a romantic liaison with a beautiful model after he had consistently denied involvement in such activity.
The reaction to Hart's cursive flexibility could have been predicted. Script has always been intimately associated with self, for reasons that are unavoidable. An eminent graphologist declared more than a century ago that "in using his pen a man acts unconsciously, as the current of his blood impels him; and there, at all times, nature flows unrestrained and free." Perhaps Hart watchers concluded that the senators nature flowed a little too freely.
Friends come to know us by any identifying signs we give them. Twenty-five years ago I switched from an old manual typewriter to an IBM Selectric. A friend to whom I regularly wrote complained that he missed the letters that were out of alignment or only partially formed, confessing that in his mind these irregularities had come to be "me." Now some e-mail users think it is good to get rid of all kinds of personal information. If our identities are concealed, they say, interpersonal business can be conducted in a more egalitarian fashion. Communications will be more fair when we don't know who we're dealing with. But of course no one set out to invent a medium of communication that would have this effect. Loss of self is an unintended consequence, and the egalitarian "benefit" a clever post hoc rationalization.
The way we speak is also influenced by our physiological status. For example, listeners are likely to know from our sound-making whether we are ill or exhausted or drunk. You may recall the Exxon Valdez, the ship that went aground in Prince William Sound in March 1989, causing the biggest accidental oil spill in history. The skipper, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, was found not guilty of the charge that he had operated the Valdez while under the influence of alcohol. But analyses conducted in the laboratory of Dr. David Pisoni at Indiana University suggested that Captain Hazelwoods speech one hour after the accident was markedly different from recordings made nine hours later and the day before (when presumably he was sober). Specifically, he misarticulated several different consonant sounds and spoke with a reduced rate, lower vocal frequency, and increased pitch variability -- findings consistent with, but not proof of, intoxication.
The Vocalyser, another device now being marketed in England, supposedly can tell whether a person has had too much to drink from the way he says "one, one, two, eight, nine." If motorists want to know if they've had too much alcohol to operate a motor vehicle, they dial a 900 number, utter the digits, and find out if they're fit to drive. The police are also interested.
The Relational Self
When I was at the University of Illinois in the mid-seventies, several graduate students and I wanted to study the way four-year-old children talked when no adults were perceptibly present. We invited into a test room pairs of children who were only slightly familiar with each other. Then we retreated to an adjacent room with a one-way observation window. Although our immediate interest was verbal fluency, we were struck by an unrelated phenomenon on our audiotapes -- the frequency with which one child would say untimidly to the other, "Do you want to be my friend?"
This is something we all want to know, although adults usually don't blurt out such a question. Instead, we engage in what may seem to be insignificant palaver, including the infamous, "Do you come here often?" If the other person responds in kind, we either have our answer or know that we are about to get it, for during the ensuing verbal exchange we will scan all concomitant nonverbal behaviors to see if the other person does indeed want to be our friend.
There is another relational effect embedded in voice and speech, layered in so deeply that it often escapes our notice. Communication scientists call it "convergence." It involves a subtle gravitational process whereby certain of a person's behaviors, especially vocal ones, drift toward those of an interacting person. In the typical case, one of the parties, often the subordinate one, unconsciously mimics the pitch, rate of speaking, loudness, vocal quality, or some aspect of the other party's word pronunciation.
Under the glare of U. S. Senate lights and fear of imprisonment, President Nixon's lawyer, John Dean, converged. He did it lexically. Analyses of transcripts from the Watergate hearings showed that Dean's word choices were influenced by the lexical patterns of his interrogators. When they used rare words in their questions, he used rare words in his answers. If more familiar words were uttered, Dean gamely followed suit. Statistical analyses showed that he changed the frequency of his words, to paraphrase a Hollywood starlet of yesteryear, as easily as some men change their shirt.
Larry King, the talk show host, has been caught in the act of converging. He did it vocally. Acoustic analyses of a number of programs reveal that when King "pitched" his questions, his own vocal frequency drifted toward the average pitch of veteran newsman Mike Wallace and President Bush -- two of the highest ranking guests in an independent evaluation. The pitch of lower-ranking guests such as Dan Quayle drifted toward King's own pitch. There was a general trend for lower-ranking individuals to converge with higher-ranking (dominant) persons.
I first discovered converging tendencies in myself as an American midwestern teenager. When talking with southerners, I had trouble hanging on to my own, less drawled way of speaking. Easterners gave me other problems with specific words. In my dialect, "aunt" rhymes with "pant," but occasionally I encountered easterners who pronounced it to rhyme with "want." I can remember thinking that if I continued to say the word my way, it would appear that I was correcting the speaker, whereas if I said it the other person's way, he might think either that I was mocking him or was phonetically "up for grabs." I found myself not wanting to say the word at all and would refer to "my father's sister" if I could. If I didn't converge, at least I could avoid going a separate way.
If our identity is of paramount importance to our fellow human beings, we must have efficient person-recognition systems, and we do. Our brain's Who System is hundreds of millennia old and extremely reliable. All the major bugs have been worked out. Sad people do not look or sound happy to us, and we are rarely uncertain whether a visibly angry person sounds joyful. We even know when a sad person is trying to seem happy.
We are able to learn the different appearances of people effortlessly, but even under threat of death we would be hard pressed to memorize the distinctive appearance of as many trees. The reason for this superior person system is that our evolutionary ancestors could not function effectively without telling all possible strangers (potential foes) from dozens of acquaintances. They also needed to participate in coordinated group activities. Those who were good at these things were more likely to survive and pass on their genes, leaving us, the grateful progeny, with efficient Who Systems.
One of the reasons we can risk these assumptions about evolution is that nonhuman primates, our distant cousins, are very sensitive to facial and vocal displays. And little wonder. Monkeys have brain cells that are dedicated to faces. Some neurons respond more vigorously to upright and intact faces than to inverted or experimentally rearranged faces. Other cells are tuned to direction of eye gaze, facial orientation, specific parts of the face, emotional expressions, and a variety of movements. In view of the generally close connection between facial and vocal activity among primates, one might expect that monkeys have voice-sensitive neurons, too, and as it turns out, they do.
Like those of monkeys, our own brains contain socially specialized mechanisms that are dedicated to faces and facial activity, and to voices and vocal activity. This set of neural and cognitive specializations forms the basis of the human Who System. And there are gross anatomical similarities -- both monkeys and humans experience emotion primarily in the right cerebral hemisphere. Damage to that area often impairs both the expression and the interpretation of emotion, yet leaves related functions alone. These right-hemisphere-damaged patients are recognized by their monotone voices and flat facial expressions, as well as their tendency to miss the humor in jokes and the point to stories. Right-hemisphere patients also tend to interpret figures of speech literally, such as "kick the bucket" or "shake a leg," phrases that are more common in casual conversation than serious discourse.
We do not, perhaps even cannot, deactivate our Who System even when a person's identity is irrelevant. This fact has emerged from psychological experiments in which learners were to remember lists of words. Much to the astonishment of investigators, the learners also recalled the actual sound of the speaker's voice up to several weeks after the experiment was over. But this is predictable: the brain mechanisms supplied by evolution spring to life whether their owners (or experimenters) direct them to or not. The vocal variations that distinguish nice or warm people from nasty or cold people were important to our ancestors. This made them grist for Darwin's mill, and they are therefore salient to us, their progeny, whether serving in laboratory experiments or attending a wedding reception.
Knowing about the expressive capacity of the voice is no license to go around moaning and murmuring to everyone we would like to know us better. In most cultures it is unacceptable to parade a conversation's worth of vocal and facial emotions before a person to whom we are not talking. The sight of such a thing would certainly be grounds for asking the waiter to change ones table in a restaurant!
To display vocal emotions we must follow an important rule: talk. This requires a suitable topic and some appropriate words. But a topic can be a theoretical red herring, deluding us into thinking that the desire to exchange information about the topic was the cause of the conversation.
If we are to express ourselves personally -- to show that we are honest or loving or trustworthy -- talking is the least that we must do, but for many intents and purposes it will be all that is needed. For as soon as we begin, our words unleash a rich flow of "nonverbal" behavior, and it is in this flow that personal cues reside. Nonverbal behaviors do not merely accompany speech like so much spare baggage, they are our species' preferred mode for the transmission of personal information. While it is true that vocalization enables us to talk, the display of our selves through the voice may be the primary reason for conversing, a motive likely to be unknown even to the participants themselves.
What would be left over if verbal information were drained from our speech? "For anyone who regards language as the canonical form of human communication," said the English physician and opera director Jonathan Miller, "the answer would probably be 'Not much is left over.'" But in reality, he said, "eliminating words and sentences exposes a level of communication of unsuspected richness, one in which human beings express their true meanings."
Most of us view ourselves as complex and interesting individuals whose character and views were built up over the entirety of our lives. It may therefore be ego-deflating to know that complete strangers can, in fact, learn a great deal about us in several seconds, as S. E. Asch said. In a study conducted at Harvard by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, volunteers evaluated a number of attributes of university instructors from just three two-second clips of silent videotape of their classroom teaching. Over a dozen attributes, from optimism and confidence to enthusiasm and warmth, proved to be highly correlated with independent ratings of the instructor's teaching ability. Essentially the same level of prediction was achieved in a second study of high school teachers, using evaluations of the school principal as the criterion of teacher effectiveness. As startling as these findings may be, there is nothing about them that is biologically anomalous. If our ancestors couldn't tell friends from foes with several seconds of nonverbal behavior, there probably wouldn't have been any survivors generations later to prove it in a Harvard psychology lab.
Much of the communicative richness of which Jonathan Miller wrote cannot be phonetically transcribed or even tape-recorded. It is "a way without words," and much of that way involves visual monitoring of the face and body. The eyes are literally the focus of most of it. "As soon as a strong current of mutual admiration begins to flow," said Robert Louis Stevenson, "the human interest triumphs entirely over the intellectual, and the commerce of words, consciously or not, becomes secondary to the commercing of eyes."
The role of eye gaze is unveiled at an early age. Infants begin to track eye movements in the first few months of life, and they notice what others are looking at. At some point they infer that what people view while talking is related to their words. This is a monumental advance, for it allows infants to "look up" the meaning of their first words.
Face reading is so natural that we tend to miss all the work accomplished when glances are cast. Consider as simple a thing as conversational turn-taking. When a speaker and listener exchange roles, the speaker usually ends his utterance by looking directly at the listener with a sustained gaze. The listener then looks away as he himself begins to speak. The speaker's glance at the listener signals his readiness for the listener to respond, and the listeners turning away indicates that he has accepted the "offer."
The eyes can also be extremely menacing. Primates avoid gazing directly at each other -- that's a threat display -- and are visibly spooked when humans look into their eyes. In many cultures, humans feel uncomfortable or even frightened if a person stares at them. We avoid eye contact with strangers in crowded places such as elevators and subway trains. Tests reveal that we usually know when someone is looking exactly into our eyes and when they are looking just a few degrees to one side or the other. If you think back a few years, you may recall the bothersome gaze of television news broadcasters when, prior to the perfection of the TelePrompTer they looked slightly away from the camera. "He's reading it," we used to declare.
Recently, the highway code in Britain was revised to include tips on how to avoid verbal clashes that might provoke "road rage." One of the suggestions was to avoid eye contact. This is precisely what I was told by Marc Hauser, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, before he took me on a tour of Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico that is home to hundreds of rhesus monkeys. This reaction to staring is a characteristic of all primate species, and it is very deeply embedded in our biological nature.
The eyes being so informative, it is only natural that people would want to see each other while talking. What better way to catch a liar? During the Watergate hearings, Herbert Kalmbach, one of President Nixon's lawyers, found himself in a very delicate situation. He had been told by John Dean to solicit funds and convey them to the so-called burglars, ostensibly to cover the costs of legal defense and family support. But he was troubled by the fact that this was to be done in absolute secrecy. According to his testimony before the U. S. Senate, when he had a chance to finally meet with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon's right-hard men, Kalmbach said,
I was beginning to have concern about this assignment...and I said, "John, I want you to tell me" -- and you know, I can remember it very vividly because I looked at him, and I said, "John, I am looking right into your eyes. I know Jeanne and your family, you know Barbara and my family. You know that my family and my reputation mean everything to me, and it is just absolutely necessary, John, that you tell me, first, that John Dean has the authority to direct me in this assignment, that it is a proper assignment, and that I am to go forward with it."
"And did he look at you in the eyes?" Mr. Kalmbach was asked. "Yes," said Mr. Kalmbach, "he did." And when, caught by Ehrlichman's gaze, Kalmbach was told that the action was proper, "the effect," he told the Senate, "actually was that it washed out the concern that I had had." The face-to-faceness of the exchange, complete with interconnecting gaze, obviously made a real difference to Mr. Kalmbach. Unfortunately, as he was later to learn, John Ehrlichman lied, apparently with his eyes as well as his words.
In England a preelection television interview with Tony Blair was submitted to an unofficial ocular analysis. According to a media watcher for The Sunday Times of London, "Mr Blair's eyes conveyed fear. The smile was there to start with but the eyes told another story -- of suspicion and anxiety." Four days later Mr. Blair's opponent, John Major, held a press conference in which, according to a different media analyst, "he kept his head immobile and facial muscles tight, smiling once in half an hour. His eyes were narrow. He blinked often but slowly." Later the reason became clear. Major was about to be buried by a massive Labour landslide, and knew it.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was said to have blinked 113 times per minute during a CNN interview with Peter Arnett. What this means is less clear than the fact that we think it must mean something. There is a different ocular behavior whose meaning is less ambiguous. Recently, the psychologist John Gottman reported the results of hundreds of interviews with husbands and wives. Remarkably, Gottman found that if a wife rolls her eyes while her husband is talking, the outlook for continuing marriage is decidedly dim.
With all this concern about the face and eyes, the question naturally arises as to how well we communicate without visual cues, without being there. When the telephone became commercially available, concern about this question was so great that the Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Australian Post Office, and the British Post Office all commissioned studies to explore public reactions to this impersonal instrument. The last found that "a considerable proportion of the population never use the telephone and, it is presumed, cannot."
Being there matters. In 1716, toward the end of a long career as a French diplomat, François de Callières, published The Art of Negotiating with Sovereign Princes. In this "bible" of diplomacy, Callières wrote that while negotiations are usually conducted either orally or in writing, "it is more advantageous for a skilful minister to negotiate by word of mouth, because he has more opportunities of discovering by this means the sentiments and designs of those with whom he treats; and of employing this dexterity to inspire them with sentiments conformable to his views, by his insinuations, and by the force of his reasons."
Woody Allen's maxim that "90 percent of life is showing up" has been taken seriously by business people. Traditionally they have set up special meetings rather than trust the mails or a telephone call when interaction is necessary. The massive hotels that ring major airports are physical evidence of this practice. Business people routinely converge on a city with no intention of sampling the nightlife, the museums, the street life, or the food. They are there for the meeting rooms at the airport hotel. They show up. They come to talk.
Sports agent Mark McCormack believes that it is often worth traveling six thousand miles to hold a five-minute face-to-face meeting. The reason, as the saying goes, is that "you can pretend to care, but you can't pretend to be there." Bill Raduchel, of Sun Microsystems, claims that "the necessary complement to the Net is the 747."
People willing to give up faces with only the greatest reluctance are people who enjoy the intimacy of human communication. They like "just the two of us" experiences. They care whether they're being spoken to or talked with, a distinction discussed in the next chapter.
Copyright © 1998 by John L. Locke