Finding Your Voice

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Original Air Date: 
July 27, 2019

Your voice is one of the most singular characteristics about you. It's how your friends and family know you. It's how you interact with the world. But many voices are policed and censored. So how comfortable are you with your voice? And how freely do you use it?

David Thorpe

David Thorpe is a filmmaker who went in search of his voice. For his documentary "Do I Sound Gay?" he investigated why he and many other gay men ended up with a "gay voice"—one with precise enunciation and sibilant "s" sounds.

Keith Powell in "Keith Breaks His Leg"

Before and since Keith Powell's breakthrough role as Toofer on the sitcom "30 Rock," he has confronted Hollywood's penchant for stereotyping black male voices.


Why are so many women criticized for "vocal fry"? Anne Strainchamps talks to podcaster Ann Friedman and NPR pioneer Susan Stamberg about critiques of female voices.

Woman waiting for moment to speak at a meeting

Veronica Rueckert, a vocal coach and public radio producer and host, shares the ways women are silenced and offers advice for how to best tap into the power of their voice.

A frog

Humans are not the only creatures who vocalize. Birds, whale and frogs have voices too—but are we listening? Bernie Krause has been recording environmental sounds all over the world since the 1970s. He says it's time for humans to shut up.

Show Details 📻
July 27, 2019
June 27, 2020
March 06, 2021
October 09, 2021
June 25, 2022
July 15, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge.

Speaker 3 (00:17):

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 4 (00:18):

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 5 (00:19):

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 6 (00:21):

Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 7 (00:22):

Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 8 (00:26):

Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 9 (00:27):

[foreign language 00:00:27] Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 10 (00:31):

[French 00:00:31] Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 11 (00:32):

[foreign language 00:00:32] Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 12 (00:32):

[foreign language 00:00:32] Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 13 (00:32):

[foreign language 00:00:32] Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 6 (00:34):

Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Speaker 14 (00:34):


Anne Strainchamps (00:42):

Hold on, hold on. I'm Anne Strainchamps. This voice, right here, this is me. As a radio host, my only identifying feature is my voice. This is how you know who I am, but what if you don't like it? Even worse, what if I don't like it? Today on To The Best Of Our Knowledge, we're listening to and thinking about voices, and all the ways we judge, criticize, repress, and police them. All the ways we censor other people's voices and silence our own.

David Thorpe (01:29):

I had kind of a lightning bolt experience, after a breakup, in which I was on a train to Fire Island...

Speaker 16 (01:38):

Where'd Clark go?

David Thorpe (01:39):

Ostensibly, to get over the breakup and-

Speaker 16 (01:42):

You guys look a little familiar.

David Thorpe (01:44):

I found myself really irked by the voices around me and overcome with this realization that, I had spent 25 years not comfortable with my voice, and that I needed to figure out why, and what to do about it.

Speaker 16 (01:59):


Anne Strainchamps (02:02):

That's how journalist David Thorpe came to make a documentary called Do I Sound Gay? So what exactly makes a voice "gay"?

David Thorpe (02:13):

Some of the stereotypical traits of a gay voice would be a voice that's higher...

Speaker 16 (02:18):


David Thorpe (02:18):


Speaker 17 (02:21):


David Thorpe (02:21):

A voice that is both very precise in the way that it is spoken...

Speaker 16 (02:26):

Oh, I stubbed my toe!

Speaker 17 (02:26):

Oh, don't stub your toe!

David Thorpe (02:29):

But also possibly very languorous and drawing out the vowels. A lot of variation in pitch is also a tip off for people. The hissy "s"...

Speaker 17 (02:43):

[inaudible 00:02:43]'s party at six.

David Thorpe (02:44):

That sibilant sound, is truly the signature of a so-called gay voice.

Speaker 17 (02:49):

So we have plenty of time.

David Thorpe (02:50):

Those are the basic traits that people look or listen for.

Speaker 18 (02:55):

Leaving the train, please watch your step.

Anne Strainchamps (03:04):

In his film, David Thorpe tries to figure out why the stereotypical gay voice is so vilified. He also wonders how and when, he himself began sounding gay.

David Thorpe (03:19):

For me, what happened was that as I was starting to go through puberty, I had a lot of gender-nonconforming ways of expressing myself. I was pretty effeminate as a little boy, but as I got into middle school, I learned very quickly that effeminacy was not acceptable. I straightened myself out so to speak, including my voice, but what my friends and family told me, in the course of my making the film, was that after I did come out around the age of 19, I did start to change the way I spoke. I did adopt a more stereotypically gay way of speaking.

Speaker 19 (04:01):

September of 1993, you sounded like a straight boy from an academic family in South Carolina. By May, you were sounding pretty gay.

David Thorpe (04:12):

Interesting. Okay, I didn't know. This has happened to me incrementally.

Speaker 19 (04:17):

You were, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerating it for a while, as you were sort of coming to terms with your identity, et cetera, but for sure.

David Thorpe (04:27):

I had been in the closet for so long and it was important to me to let people know that I was gay from a... I wanted them to know, from a far distance, that a gay guy was coming down the path. But I think then as I got a bit older, that flamboyant way of speaking started to feel like a trap and maybe a performance.

Anne Strainchamps (04:51):

Well, what's interesting about what you're saying is, the way voice and identity are so linked. You talk about changing your voice around 19, when you're just beginning to adopt your new adult identity, and of course your voice echoes and reflects that. Then it sounds like quite a bit later, you began to wonder about that identity, as we all do. There's a point at which we all get to a place where we've been living inside this particular adult identity we've crafted and lived inside for a while. Often there's a time when it doesn't fit anymore. It's like a set of clothes that have gotten too small.

David Thorpe (05:30):

Absolutely. We go through a lot of ups and downs in our lives and we go through a lot of changes and sometimes our voices follow and sometimes they don't. The film depicts a time in my life when I was feeling very vulnerable and feeling a real lack of confidence. There's no shortage of people from other backgrounds who talk about how their voices play a role in their sense of self, whether it's a lesbian of color who is really keenly aware of how she code-switches, to southerners, who sometimes feel like their accents make them sound uneducated. Many people are not always in sync with their voices, in terms of how they want to be seen or heard.

Anne Strainchamps (06:18):

Mm. You actually wound up going to a couple of speech therapists to try to sound less gay. First of all, there are therapists who do that?

David Thorpe (06:29):

Well, I initially wanted to try to learn how to sound less gay, so that in situations where I felt vulnerable about being visibly or audibly gay, I would feel safer. Also, maybe for some more shallow reasons, I knew that a more masculine voice would make me more attractive to other gay men, which just tends to be how it is out on the single scene.

Anne Strainchamps (06:57):

Wait, wait, wait, because that's a fascinating point. So sounding gay makes you less attractive to other gay men?

David Thorpe (07:06):

Well, the gay community in general, there is a value placed on masculinity, just like in mainstream culture at large. You only have to flip through a gay magazine to see how masculine and macho most of the images are, that are supposed to be kind of exciting.

Anne Strainchamps (07:25):

Does this seem problematic at all to you, like a kind of internalized homophobia?

David Thorpe (07:29):

Oh, yes. In one way, the emphasis on masculinity is problematic, because it's a stereotype that many of us don't fit and that frankly, many straight men don't fit. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a fetish, as long as it doesn't interfere with your ability to form relationships with people, but there is a kind of superficial worship of masculinity that can be stigmatizing.

Anne Strainchamps (07:53):

Right. Well, I guess the question is, on the one hand, is there a kind of worship of masculinity? On the other hand, is there dislike or rejection of femininity?

David Thorpe (08:06):

Absolutely. Absolutely. This fear of sounding gay is a fear of effeminacy, which essentially springs from a kind of misogyny, that women are less than, they're second class citizens. That why would you ever want to be more like a woman and less like a man. The gay community is no different than mainstream society. It's sometimes a shock, I think, to people who aren't gay, to find that out. But I think it actually sort of shows how we are, in many ways, all prey to the same cultural prejudices.

Anne Strainchamps (08:41):

It's fascinating how much, once you start digging into the voice, how many of the ways we code voices, you realize we've grown up with. One of my favorite, for me, most eye-opening sections of your film is the one in which you wind up talking about Disney villains and this kind of whole cultural history, how they're coded as gay, which I had never noticed.

David Thorpe (09:05):

When you see them all cut together, it's very unmistakable that this kind of aristocratic, effeminate gay voice has been a mainstay of Disney for quite some time.

Speaker 20 (09:19):

I thought perhaps you were entertaining someone up there in your coils.

Speaker 22 (09:23):

You know what happens when someone upsets me.

Speaker 23 (09:27):

Perhaps I can divine a solution to this thorny problem.

Speaker 25 (09:32):

Oh, I shall practice my curtsy.

David Thorpe (09:35):

It is a little bit disturbing to think that a stereotypical gay voice is so affixed to the notion of the villain.

Anne Strainchamps (09:44):

When you set out to figure out whether you sound gay, did you figure out how to sound straight? What is the sound of straightness?

David Thorpe (09:54):

Well, let's say I understand sounding straight much better, even though I myself am not always capable of turning on a dime and doing so. But I mean, again, sounding straight is shorthand for a masculine or even hyper-masculine voice. A voice that's lower, a voice that goes down at the end, that makes authoritative statements, as opposed to going up at the end. We have yet to allow an effeminate voice be an authoritative voice.

Anne Strainchamps (10:25):

It's really fascinating when you start talking about it, don't you think you just start noticing the infinite vocal variety around us and the many things our voices can signify. It makes the world more interesting.

David Thorpe (10:39):

I agree. I think one of the things that the process of making Do I Sound Gay helped me do, was to learn to delight in the variety of people's voices and the richness of what they tell us, or we think they can tell us.

Anne Strainchamps (11:01):

David Thorpe is a journalist and filmmaker, and we were talking about his documentary called Do I Sound Gay? David got to decide for himself how he wants to sound.

Anne Strainchamps (11:14):

Others are not so lucky. Here's 30 Rock star Keith Powell, describing a scene from his comedy web series, called Keith Broke His Leg.

Keith Powell (11:25):

In this particular episode, my agent calls me and tells me that she has a voiceover audition for me. It's for Baller Cruises, which is an African American cruise line. The copy for it is so horribly racist and stereotypical and comedy ensues.

Speaker 26 (11:47):

Baby mama ragging on you for the fourth time this week? Your pops skip town with all your casino winnings, again? Ever think you need a vacation from it all? For this month only, Baller Cruises, the nation's birthday...

Anne Strainchamps (12:04):

Okay, he's playing that up for comedic effect, but it's actually a painful reality. Keith tells Raymond Tendulkar that before and since his breakout role on 30 Rock, he has been forced to confront how Hollywood thinks Black men are supposed to talk.

Keith Powell (12:21):

Before I got on 30 Rock, I would always do auditions and somebody would go, "Ah, that was great. But can it be a little bit more urban?"

Raymond Tendulkar (12:29):

Wait, really? This actually happened to you?

Keith Powell (12:31):

Oh my god. This is a completely accurate story. I actually was just told that a week ago. The person who auditioned me was like, "Ah, yeah, but I mean, this character is down. They're so much more down than what you're playing." And I was like, "What does that mean? It happens a lot for a lot of Black actors, unfortunately.

Raymond Tendulkar (12:57):

Yeah. I feel like there should be some kind of study looking at the coded language that directors-

Keith Powell (13:01):

It's a lot of coded language. Yeah. Which is ironic because I was born in west Philadelphia. Frankly, I'm from the streets. My mother was on welfare. I lived in not the best neighborhood. I'm the guy that a lot of people say are like street guys. I don't talk like that and a lot of my friends don't talk like that, who also come from humble beginnings.

Raymond Tendulkar (13:32):

Going into your first audition, did you anticipate this? Is that something you thought you would encounter?

Keith Powell (13:37):

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I wasn't expecting the level of coded language and how strongly an industry felt about continuing and perpetuating stereotypes, that are ultimately dismissive and belittling of an entire culture, that is wide and varied. I started kind of lashing out at the beginning of my auditions.

Raymond Tendulkar (14:04):

Well, I understand that early on, you actually adopted a really interesting strategy to avoid these awkward conversations.

Keith Powell (14:14):

Yeah. Well, I just would literally walk into audition rooms with a English accent and then do the script as if it were just me and then go back to the English accent when leaving, completely making them think that I was British. Then I never got the note of, "Can you make it a little bit more urban?" again. It just made my life easier.

Raymond Tendulkar (14:39):

Well, and that gets to this question I have, voice and racial identity are so closely intertwined, right?

Keith Powell (14:46):


Raymond Tendulkar (14:47):

I would imagine that for someone to say that you're talking or acting white, it kind of suggests that you're less authentically Black, right?

Keith Powell (14:55):

Correct. That's exactly what happens and it's kind of disgusting. It goes into identity and it goes basically back into how you were raised and what perceptions you were raised with. It very much exposes your own personal biases, that you didn't know that you had, if you identify race and voice. I sound like a Black man because I'm Black, right? Voices don't have color.

Raymond Tendulkar (15:27):

I'm reminded of something that I think it was John McWhorter, the linguist, that said it, but he basically talked about how white students have the space and freedom to kind of explore different identities. You never hear people say, call someone a white goth or a white stoner.

Keith Powell (15:43):


Raymond Tendulkar (15:44):

And yet if someone of color does that, they're perceived as acting white, right?

Keith Powell (15:50):

It happens all the time, in comedy specifically, where identity is taken away from you. In comedy, you're not just the golfer, you're the Black golfer. Or I've auditioned for parts where it's called Black Guy. Your entire identity is boiled down to your race, is a trope in comedy. It doesn't happen for a lot of white comedians.

Raymond Tendulkar (16:15):

Well, going back to Keith Broke His Leg. I want to talk about another episode from the series, Mellow. It involves-

Keith Powell (16:24):

I'm the most proud of that.

Raymond Tendulkar (16:25):

Can you just briefly talk about what happens and maybe just give a short description?

Keith Powell (16:29):

Actually, this episode is based 100% on a true story. My wife in the episode throws a karaoke party in the backyard and the police get called and comedy ensues.

Speaker 25 (16:42):

You the owner of this house?

Keith Powell (16:44):

I am, what's the problem?

Speaker 26 (16:45):

We received a noise complaint about the music you're playing back there.

Keith Powell (16:49):

I will tell them to turn it down.

Speaker 26 (16:52):

It's probably a better idea if you just turn it off.

Keith Powell (16:55):

Can I ask, who reported me?

Speaker 26 (16:56):

Sir, a few of your neighbors called us. This is a work night. Now I know this might not mean much to you, but there are plenty of residents that need their sleep. So a little less partying and a little bit more humility would be greatly appreciated.

Speaker 25 (17:09):


Keith Powell (17:11):

Okay. I will tell them to turn it off. You can go

Speaker 25 (17:18):

Have a nice rest of your night, sir.

Keith Powell (17:20):

The new racism is not to be racist. It's to use coded language and it's happened to me and it's happened to me by police officers. Yeah. That's a real story, it really happened.

Raymond Tendulkar (17:34):

Well, do you see your comedy as pushing against that type of narrow thinking and or that biased thinking? Do you see your comedy as serving some kind of social justice purpose?

Keith Powell (17:48):

Well, I'd like to think about it as the anti-stereotype, right? In comedy, you have to kind of boil people down to their essence, in order for it to be identifiable quickly and then you can make fun of it. It's not just specific to race. It is specific to the dumb hillbilly or the valley girl. What I'm hoping to do is take that and put it on its head. I like comedy that's a little slower.

Keith Powell (18:19):

When you take comedy that's a little slower, that you don't have to reduce somebody down to a joke, you can still get the laughs, but you start seeing a human being in there. That's kind of how I feel like the Mellow episode goes. That's the thing that I've learned. How do you survive in an industry that needs you, but doesn't want you. The way that you survive, is to be yourself and to speak your truth. You certainly don't have to fight to have your truth be heard, because sometimes it won't be heard, but the best you can do is just speak it.

Anne Strainchamps (19:06):

That's the actor, Keith Powell. You remember him from 30 Rock? Talking with producer Raymond Tendulkar about his web comedy series, Keith Broke His Leg.

Anne Strainchamps (19:20):

After the break, the debate over women's voices and vocal fry gets personal for me. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (19:40):

I've spent a lot of time feeling bad about my voice. It's kind of scratchy. It can sound gravelly or rough and it didn't help that right about the time I started hosting this show, people all over the internet began complaining about women's voices.

Speaker 27 (19:55):

America's young women are running out of oxygen. What else could explain why so many of them sound like this?

Speaker 28 (20:03):

Something called "vocal fry" that is creeping into the speech patterns of young women.

Speaker 29 (20:08):

They sound like a sexy baby.

Speaker 30 (20:09):

Shoes! Fashion!

Speaker 31 (20:10):

Pulling my leg.

Speaker 32 (20:11):

So a bazillion years ago.

Speaker 33 (20:13):

Law school.

Speaker 34 (20:13):


Speaker 35 (20:14):

The only one.

Speaker 36 (20:15):


Speaker 37 (20:16):

Baby shopping.

Speaker 38 (20:17):

It's called vocal fry, right? Oh, and it's the most annoying thing ever.

Speaker 39 (20:24):

Kind of like that.

Anne Strainchamps (20:26):

So I heard all this stuff and I thought, oh my god, that's what I have. I have vocal fry. I should get help.

Brienne Ruelle (20:33):

My name is Brienne Ruelle. I am a speech pathologist who specializes in voice and voice disorders.

Seth Dailey (20:38):

Seth Dailey. I'm an associate professor of surgery in otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Anne Strainchamps (20:46):

And these guys put me through a bunch of tests.

Brienne Ruelle (20:48):

You were lucky enough to have the scope that actually travels through the mouth, it peaks over the back of the tongue. It's a very long rigid metal scope and it shines light down onto the vocal folds. But to do that, you have to stick out your tongue and say the sound "Eh". The most distorted sounding "Eh" you'll probably ever hear.

Anne Strainchamps (21:07):

This was not the most fun thing I've ever done, but it let them check out my vocal folds. Imagine something kind of like the mouth of a sea urchin, opening and closing.

Brienne Ruelle (21:17):

Thankfully, in your case, your vocal folds looked gorgeous. There was pliability. There was no stiffness. The structures were moving like they should. Seth and Brienne are medical professionals. The main thing they wanted me to know about vocal fry is there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Nothing.

Seth Dailey (21:34):

It is a voice variant. It's a variant of voice production. Everyone is capable of having vocal fry and all of us have elements of it.

Brienne Ruelle (21:42):

Fry, to be clear, is a normal production in the voice. It's not something abnormal. It's something even songbirds do in nature.

Anne Strainchamps (21:50):

Wait, wait, wait. If vocal fry is normal, if even songbirds do it, then why is everybody complaining about it? Specifically, why is everybody complaining about women and vocal fry? Think of the voice as a musical instrument, people are always coming up with new ways to play it. It turns out that some of the most linguistically innovative people on the planet are teenage girls and young women. But what's music to one person's ears, is sandpaper to another's.

Speaker 42 (22:23):

I feel like you're... This is like pop culture psychology. It's like, okay, well, tell me why you feel the way you do about Ciara. Like what's the-

Anne Strainchamps (22:29):

This is Call Your Girlfriend, a podcast hosted by three young women. In every episode they call each other up and they talk just the way girlfriends do, about pop culture, politics, their personal lives. It's a really popular show. And yet, its creator Ann Friedman says they are constantly getting criticized, not for what they say, but for how they talk.

Ann Friedman (22:52):

A common theme is that we seem like really smart women. If only we said "like" not so often, they might be able to pay attention to what we're actually saying.

Anne Strainchamps (23:04):

There's a whole package of vocal patterns that go together and get criticized together. Upspeak, which is when you use a rising intonation at the end of a sentence. Using filler words, "like", "I mean", "you know." And vocal fry. Women who host podcasts or produce radio and use any of these get hate mail. I know I do. Even though there are plenty of men on the radio doing the same thing,

Ann Friedman (23:29):

You know, Ira Glass has spoken about this. He has vocal fry, many acclaimed male broadcasters have vocal fry. You know, women and men are both using filler words. They both have vocal fry. They both use upspeak. But for some reason, we think it makes women less serious. Or we think we hear it more often when women are speaking. I try to look at it like, "Hey, if someone were emailing me and saying like, you know, Ann, your ideas seem really smart, but then I noticed that you're parting your hair on the left and it's really just not as attractive as when you used to part it on the right. Or I noticed your skirt was an inch shorter than it should have been, so I couldn't listen to your ideas." I would immediately just laugh it off as absolute ridiculous sexism.

Anne Strainchamps (24:10):

Here's the thing I don't understand. Why doesn't anyone tell men they should learn to talk more like women?

Ann Friedman (24:17):

Well, that's another interesting thing. You know, the linguists I talked to said women, when we use filler words like this, it's because we're truly in conversation. We use pauses and likes and words that are sort of hedging, to allow people we're in dialogue with to have an opening.

Anne Strainchamps (24:34):

All this criticism of women's speech began to seem just like an old story to me. So I called up the mother of women in public broadcasting, Susan Stamberg. When she became the host of All Things Considered in 1972, she was the first woman to anchor a national broadcast news program. Did she get hostile comments?

Susan Stamberg (24:53):

The comments that I got, directly to me, were, "Yay, yay. More! Keep it up." But unbeknownst to me, and I only learned about it 11 years after the fact, Bill Siemering, who was the creator of All Things Considered, told me that in the beginning, he had quite a bit of criticism from station managers who said, "A woman's voice is not authoritative. She is not believable. She will not speak with any conviction. People will not take her seriously."

Anne Strainchamps (25:28):


Susan Stamberg (25:28):

Now, he waited 11 years to tell me this, because he knew if he told me, it would've thrown me in some way and affected my performance.

Anne Strainchamps (25:37):

Even so, Susan went through a phase of trying to change her voice too.

Susan Stamberg (25:42):

Because there were no role models, I was the first to do this, figured I had to sound like the men. I lowered my voice and I tried to sound as authoritative as possible. And he, Bill Siemering, said to me, "Be yourself." It was like Mr. Rogers, "I like you just the way you are." As a matter of fact, I could stop being a silly pseudo man. It became in a way, because I was the first, the voice of NPR, that is, we moved from this stentorian voice from the top of the mountain, which is what broadcasting was then, to much more conversational, a much more natural sound.

Anne Strainchamps (26:22):

So what do you think about the current round of criticism of mostly young women's voices? The criticism that there's too much vocal fry, too much uptalk, too many filler words, too many "likes" and "you knows." do you have any particular reaction to all that?

Susan Stamberg (26:38):

I can't stand it. Is that particular enough for you? And neutral?

Anne Strainchamps (26:45):


Susan Stamberg (26:46):

I believe this is as much generational as anything else. To my ear, it's unlovely, it calls attention to itself. It's distracting and it gets in the way of the information of what the person is trying to say. As a matter of fact, when I do interviews and people I'm interviewing begin to speak that way, as politely as I can, I interrupt and say, "I'm so sorry, but would you mind? Just imagine that your voice is a line and end it straight. Don't go up with it at the end."

Susan Stamberg (27:18):

Because after a while to hear that too much, it becomes really unpleasant, at least to my ear and to the ears of many people.

Anne Strainchamps (27:28):

You're kidding. You actually coach your guest, you tell them, "Stop talking that way."

Speaker 22 (27:32):

Horrifying. I think you're horrified.

Veronica Rueckert (27:36):

Fundamentally, what we forget all the time, is that speaking should be an act of joy.

Anne Strainchamps (27:42):

This is Veronica Rueckert, she's a friend and a colleague and she runs workshops for people like me, women who want to develop the full power and range of their voices.

Veronica Rueckert (27:52):

Because it's an instrument. It's an instrument that lives inside our body, so it becomes very personal. So a lot of the ways that we feel about ourselves, our self worth, our self perception, our intelligence, a lot of that gets packaged into the voice.

Anne Strainchamps (28:13):

I guess what I decided is, I am really tired of worrying about my voice. I'm tired of feeling bad about something so fundamental, about who I am. So yeah, I have vocal fry, my voice creaks, it cracks sometimes. I don't care. That's what I sound like. That's who I am.

Anne Strainchamps (28:43):

I did that piece about four years ago and since then, there's been a sea change. Historic numbers of women in Congress, the Me Too movement, which is all about women speaking up. An unprecedented number of women running for President. So you would think the world is getting more used to listening when powerful women talk.

Speaker 46 (29:07):

You'll hear arguments this morning in case 14981, Fisher versus the University of Texas at Austin.

Veronica Rueckert (29:14):

A particular Supreme Court study showed that female Supreme Court justices were interrupted a third more often than men were.

Speaker 46 (29:25):

They're all done equally.

Speaker 47 (29:26):

Can I come back to this, the issue of...

Veronica Rueckert (29:28):

Not only were these women interrupted by their peers by fellow Supreme Court justices who were men. They were also interrupted more often by advocates for the court who were men.

Speaker 46 (29:38):

On a racial basis.

Speaker 25 (29:39):

Get parents involved, we indicated that...

Veronica Rueckert (29:42):

So everyone sort of thought, "Hey, it's okay to interrupt women." Here's another interesting thing about that study. The more women on the Court, the more they got interrupted.

Speaker 48 (29:53):

Mr. Ryan, may I ask, would you then recognize that you had no claim?

Speaker 49 (30:02):

With respect, I would question the premise of the question.

Veronica Rueckert (30:05):

It's almost like there was this pushback on the Supreme Court, on women's voices.

Anne Strainchamps (30:10):

Have women on the Court talked about it at all?

Veronica Rueckert (30:12):

They did find a way to be heard. They started to talk more like men.

Speaker 48 (30:16):

No, no, no, no. I know you're saying they didn't need to do it. I said, "Put it aside and answer Justice Ginsburg's question." If they had...

Anne Strainchamps (30:25):

So it is a win, because they got their ideas on the board. They figured out a way, they found that hidden pathway and they talked, but they had to talk like men.

Speaker 49 (30:33):

You're trying to create.

Speaker 48 (30:34):

My god, that sounds like it's using race more, rather than less, than this plan does.

Anne Strainchamps (30:44):

Remember Veronica Rueckert, my former public radio colleague, who coaches women on how to free their voices? Well, she's still interested in the relationship between women's voices and women's power. And her new book is called Outspoken.

Anne Strainchamps (30:59):

Veronica, I want to start with this really interesting study, that I learned about from you. The one that compared U.S. Senators in terms of their volubility.

Veronica Rueckert (31:08):

Right, this is the Victoria Brescoll study. That's the researcher's name from Yale University. She wanted to know if there was a relationship between how powerful a person was and how much time they spent talking. Will that translate into sort of that right to feel that you can speak more often and-

Anne Strainchamps (31:26):

Take up more conversational space.

Veronica Rueckert (31:28):

Take up more space, right. With men, it did. The more power they held, the more they talked, on the Senate floor.

Anne Strainchamps (31:34):

So the more powerful senators talked more than the less powerful senators, right?

Veronica Rueckert (31:38):

The more powerful male senators. You'll notice I'm emphasizing the word male, because the same did not hold true for women. There was no correlation. You could have a woman who also wielded large amounts of power, but she didn't talk anymore than the male senators. And you know this, I'm not telling you anything, that there are a thousand different ways over the course of a woman's lifetime, that she can bury her voice, that it just goes underground, we just shut up.

Veronica Rueckert (32:06):

I did work with women who just said, "You know what? I would flat out rather not talk at all."

Anne Strainchamps (32:11):

Well, the other thing though, I think, is that often there are still consequences for women who speak up, right?

Veronica Rueckert (32:17):

Well, right, in this same study that we were talking about, she, after that initial experiment, looked at what happens if we create hypothetical executives and we tell them that both male and female executives speak more than their peers and then they ask them well, "So what do you think about that? What does that do to their competency rating? How competent do you think they are?"

Veronica Rueckert (32:39):

Just based on that, that they talk more. For men, the competency rating went up by 10%. These men talked more and people thought, "Hey, they're actually better at their jobs." Women, their competency rating went down-

Anne Strainchamps (32:53):

You're kidding.

Veronica Rueckert (32:55):

By 14%. And you know what? Women know this. I don't think anyone is shocked by this, any woman is shocked by this, because it's this sort of invisible weight that we have felt for generations, that there is something not right when women talk. We feel it. And we often shut down.

Anne Strainchamps (33:12):

When you talk with women about closing that talking gap, I know that you like to start with the breath and the body, how come?

Veronica Rueckert (33:20):

Because the body is sort of ground zero, because what are we taught as girls from about five years old?

Anne Strainchamps (33:28):

Suck in your tummy.

Veronica Rueckert (33:30):

Suck it in, right?

Veronica Rueckert (33:30):

Yeah, so we could do an experiment right now. I have my workshop participants cross their legs.

Anne Strainchamps (33:36):

Mine are already crossed, always sitting with my legs crossed.

Veronica Rueckert (33:39):

There's no judgment here. No, it's a default position. I call it the lady pretzel. We cross our legs. We cross our arms. When you're all crossed up like this and you try to take a deep breath, you can't really breathe. You end up with, this kind of feeling and voice that's not very strong.

Anne Strainchamps (33:56):

Another thing that really startled me in your book, you were saying one, there's a particular office space, a very common office space, that is really hard on women. It's open plan offices, why?

Veronica Rueckert (34:09):

Right, I completely stumbled on this, because I had a client, she had this whisper voice and it didn't have strength and it felt fatigued. I just had trouble hearing her.

Veronica Rueckert (34:19):

I was trying to figure out where it came from. Had she always had this? Finally, I asked her, "Do you, by any chance, work in an open office space?" She said, "Yes." And she showed me, we took a tour of her office. Yeah, it was beautiful, modern, open, airy, but completely exposed. Every sound you make, there was no acoustical privacy for a voice there. Women have already been socialized from a super young age to be accommodating team players, to anticipate others' needs, not to disturb, not to make waves, to be a good girl. So you put them in these office spaces, where you have to be that person who is so kind and considerate, that you never raise your voice above a whisper. By the way, it's much harder on the voice to whisper than it is to speak at full level.

Anne Strainchamps (35:10):

What are the thousands of women who can't quit their jobs and are working in cubicle farms? What are they supposed to do?

Veronica Rueckert (35:17):

Maybe you have to have an HR policy or something that says, you know what, it's okay for voices to be heard. You could have noise-canceling headphones for people who want to really hunker down and work, but you can also have female leadership that says here we are in this environment and we're going to talk anyway. We're going to use our voices anyway, with strength.

Anne Strainchamps (35:36):

I want to make sure we talk about interrupting. Why do you think learning to interrupt is important for women?

Veronica Rueckert (35:42):

I think it's important because it comes up in life. How many times have you been at some sort of meeting or high stakes discussion and you had an idea and you wanted to voice it and it was now or never, but the conversation is moving so quickly and the participants are male and they have this energy?

Veronica Rueckert (36:02):

I hear this actually, especially from people, women who work in marketing, is one industry where it's difficult.

Anne Strainchamps (36:08):

Fast paced.

Veronica Rueckert (36:09):

Fast paced, loud, where it's...

Anne Strainchamps (36:11):

A lot of very verbal people.

Veronica Rueckert (36:12):

Right, exactly, that kind of environment. Not all women, none of these apply to everybody, but that's-

Anne Strainchamps (36:16):

And I think this applies to some men too, probably.

Veronica Rueckert (36:18):

Right. Men too. Exactly. So it's important.

Anne Strainchamps (36:22):

Okay. So let's say I'm sitting at one of those meetings, ideas are flying and I've got something that I want to say, but I'm having trouble finding a way in, because every time I start to say something, somebody else is already there talking. What do I do?

Veronica Rueckert (36:36):

There are different things. One of them is sort of this game of chicken, where you dive in, you have to find your moment. Everyone has to breathe sometimes. There is a pause, you'll find these natural micro-pauses in the conversation and you slice in and you have to go in quickly and you have to go in louder than the person who's speaking.

Veronica Rueckert (36:58):

If they try to keep speaking, you have to talk just a little bit louder than them, for longer than them. So it becomes a,

Anne Strainchamps (37:07):

It sounds like a contact sport. Yeah.

Veronica Rueckert (37:09):

It becomes a game of chicken and it can be tough, but it's also fun. But here's something encouraging. Former secretary of state, Madeline Albright... Okay, let's pause.

Veronica Rueckert (37:18):

Madeline Albright, super powerful, super inspiring woman said to this day, she feels a squirm of discomfort when she interrupts in a room full of men. It's hard, period. It's hard for everybody. By the way, that's another thing that women really battle against, feeling that they have to rush through every sentence, because the audience will not yield her the floor for long. She may be interrupted and "Hey, my boss over there looks bored. He's got his phone out. I have to talk faster and faster, so I can get out of here really quick." Women are always rushing and scurrying when they speak.

Anne Strainchamps (37:54):

What about how to handle being interrupted?

Veronica Rueckert (37:58):

One option is that you too can keep talking and you don't look at the person talking, because that grants some power to continue. You might hold up kind of a finger in their direction-

Anne Strainchamps (38:08):

Like uh-uh-uh, school marm finger.

Veronica Rueckert (38:10):

Yeah, just a quick... Or, "Let me finish, hang on one sec." Or you can say, "Bob, I wasn't done with my point. Let me finish that and then we'll get back."

Anne Strainchamps (38:19):

So far, we've been talking about what women can do about the problem, but it's not all on women or shouldn't be, we're also talking about office situations where men are just talking too much, too fast, too loud. They're interrupting, they're taking up too much conversational space. Just assuming that they have the right to do that, what do you say to men beyond... Besides, "Shut up."

Veronica Rueckert (38:45):

There are things that men can learn. None of this is obvious at this point because it's so baked in. One idea, these are drawn from the discussion project at the University of Wisconsin Madison, you can teach those who jump in first to wait. You can run a timer on them and say, "Okay, you get 30 seconds to talk and everyone else gets a minute and you have to listen. You have to feel what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes."

Veronica Rueckert (39:18):

For a woman, it might be, "Hey, this is what it feels like to talk for a whole minute. You have to fill up this space. If you don't fill it up, we sit here in silence and you still get the impact of just what this feels like." Really we do have to condition men and other dominant speakers, what it feels like and how important it is to make room.

Anne Strainchamps (39:38):

That happens a lot, just in my personal experience, is people really trying to listen better. The other thing is, I do think that we are seeing, at least in the podcasting world, the number of women hosts of podcasts, it's not nearly what it should be, but it's improved dramatically over the last few years.

Veronica Rueckert (40:02):

Did that kind of thing happen, five years ago, even?

Anne Strainchamps (40:05):


Veronica Rueckert (40:05):

Where people were so aware that maybe everyone isn't talking and really it's not even just who's talking, but what contributions are we missing?

Anne Strainchamps (40:12):

Yes. That's what we're not saying, it's not just the sound of somebody's voice. You're missing the ideas of half the population.

Veronica Rueckert (40:22):

Right, and ideas that are game-changing ideas.

Anne Strainchamps (40:34):

Veronica Rueckert is a recovering public radio host and the author of Outspoken: Why Women's Voices Get Silenced and How to Set Them Free.

Anne Strainchamps (40:46):

Coming up, learning to listen to all the voices, including the non-human. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (41:12):

We've been talking about voices. Whose get heard and whose get silenced, but humans aren't the only creatures on the planet with something to say. Birds, whales, insects, trees, they all communicate. Most of us don't pay much attention, but Bernie Krause does. He's a musician, who's been recording environmental sounds all over the world since the 1970's. Steve Paulson caught up with him.

Steve Paulson (41:42):

Bernie, when I think of a voice, I think of something that humans have, maybe even something that is uniquely human, but you seem to hear different kinds of voices. What is a voice, for you?

Bernie Krause (41:54):

Well, actually you make a really good point, because we're so human-centric that we think of everything that we see and hear in the world as being entirely from our perspective. Let me describe to you what you're talking about here, because what I've done is I've taken the notion of the soundscape, meaning all of the sound that reaches our ears from any source. Well, I've taken that idea and developed it out into a number of different major sources. One of the sources is natural sound that's non-biological. Like wind in the trees or waves at the ocean shore, water in a stream, that kind of thing. That's what I call a geophony, so it's sounds of the earth that are natural sounds.

Bernie Krause (42:41):

The second of these components is the biophony. That's all the organisms that create sound, in a collective way that comes from natural habitats. The third is the anthropophony, human noise. Some of it is controlled, like music and theater, and most of it is random and chaotic and incoherent. It's what we call noise.

Steve Paulson (43:04):

Can you only hear all of these different sounds because of the fidelity of your recording equipment or can your natural ear just pick up a lot of these sounds?

Bernie Krause (43:13):

Well, I've learned to listen very carefully. I started off as a musician, so I had some ability to be able to hear things in a discriminating way. But when I began to work in this field, it really helped me learn to hear in ways that I'd never heard before. Music doesn't even come close to teaching you that kind of discrimination. I have to say, that one of the benefits of this work, is that I had a terrible case of ADHD I've had since the time I was a kid and I still do as an older adult. The only thing, and I'm talking about forget medication, forget therapies and forget all that other stuff. The only thing that really helps mitigate this problem is natural sound. I listen to it all the time.

Steve Paulson (44:01):

Really? That's fascinating. So that calms you down?

Bernie Krause (44:03):

Yeah. If we do a little bit of research on it, I'm sure that this stuff would have true medical benefits, if people want to do a little work on it.

Steve Paulson (44:16):

Well, you mention in your book a Japanese form of healing called shinrin yoku, which literally means taking in the forest atmosphere.

Bernie Krause (44:25):


Steve Paulson (44:26):

Right. Which I love. I guess, in practice, that means you go out in the forest and you hang out under the canopy.

Bernie Krause (44:32):

Well, exactly. There are a number of groups that still are very closely connected to the natural world, like the balaka in the Central African Republic, or the Kaluli in Papua New Guinea and others as well, who, when they come in contact with the Western cash economies, the stress levels on trying to produce are so high, that they really take a toll on these groups. So finally what they do is they just, they go away, they go away for three months into the forest, just to listen to the sounds. They actually heal by bathing themselves in these soundscapes, these biophonies.

Steve Paulson (45:11):

Now I know there is really an emerging science of this kind of soundscape that you're talking about, but I'm wondering also if there's been an issue of what to listen to. For instance, if we're trying to identify birds, often you just hear that one individual bird, and that's supposed to explain what the bird is, but I'm wondering if science is coming to a different understanding of how actually to listen.

Bernie Krause (45:37):

That's also a really great question, because when I began, the methodology for recording in the natural world meant that we had to go out with a very large parabolic dish and record single birds one at a time or single mammals one at a time or frog or an insect. What I realized very early on, was we weren't getting very good information from this kind of reductionist, abstract or fragmented, incoherent way of looking at the world. I was interested in a more holistic way of listening to the world. I began very early recording from a more holistic perspective, recording the whole soundscape in a given habitat.

Steve Paulson (46:19):

What do these sounds tell us about our environments, that we can't know if we just rely on other senses? We would be missing something that we can only understand through these kinds of soundscapes.

Bernie Krause (46:32):

The whole idea of soundscape ecology has evolved from the notion that all of the collective sounds in a given healthy habitat from all the organisms that make these sounds, tell us a great deal about the health and stability of that habitat. The reason that we know that, is if we take a look at a graphic illustration of sound called a spectrogram, we can actually see the discrimination of sounds.

Bernie Krause (46:59):

Because what the animals do, is they evolve in these habitats so that they establish their own bandwidth or their own niche. The birds have one niche, the insects have another, the frogs have another niche. The mammals have another niche and it's like television channels or radio station channels. They all stay out of each other's way. It's much like instruments in an orchestra, just imagine a musical composition and you'll get the idea.

Steve Paulson (47:29):

There are also similar principles operating in the ocean. You have this incredible example of seals and magnetic signals in the lower atmosphere and how two different species of seals, 12,000 miles apart actually have similar vocalizations. Can you explain this?

Bernie Krause (47:49):

Well, what I'm demonstrating here is how animals get their voices. In this particular case, I use the illustration of thunderstorms that occur at the equator. These thunderstorms transmit the electrical energy of the thunderstorm through the magnetic field, to both poles, the North and the South Pole. At the South Pole, there's a seal called the Weddell seal, that has somehow picked up the signals of these low frequency radio transmissions and created its vocalization, based on the electrical energy of these thunderstorms, which is transmitted as a radio frequency. They pick up these electrical signals and created their voice. Now what's unusual is, that the Weddell seal never comes in contact with the bearded seal, which is in Alaska, the north slope of Alaska and the bearded seal has almost exactly the same kind of voice.

Steve Paulson (48:46):

There are real world implications to this kind of work as well. I know you've done recordings in national parks for instance, and there's an ongoing controversy about how much human-made sound should be allowed in the national parks. How is this playing out?

Bernie Krause (49:02):

My sense is, that the national parks, like every place else have to be open to a lot of different kinds of people and they're going to come into the parks in many different ways of conveyance. Some on Harley's, straight piping their way through the valleys of Yosemite, some in RVs, some in cars that are a little bit more quiet and peaceful.

Bernie Krause (49:24):

We have to just decide ourselves, as a culture, whether or not we want this noise. There was this guy by the name of James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior in the early eighties, he said, "Noise is power." The more noisy we are as Americans, the more powerful we appear to be, to others. Isn't that incredible?

Steve Paulson (49:42):

Wow. Yeah, it is.

Bernie Krause (49:45):

I don't know what the natural course of things is. I just know that we're part of it and that if we destroy what it is, that's around us, that's a very basis of our lives. There're going to be consequences for that. These biophonies, these are really critical for us to hear and preserve. This may be our very last chance to hear the voice of the divine.

Steve Paulson (50:06):

Wow. Yeah. So one final question. What can we do to protect these natural soundscapes?

Bernie Krause (50:16):

We can shut the hell up and that's what we've got to do.

Anne Strainchamps (50:24):

Wow, I kind of hate to say anything after that. Bernie Krause is a world renowned soundscape ecologist, and the author of Voices of the Wild. He talked with Steve Paulson. That's it for our show today.

Anne Strainchamps (50:43):

Thanks for listening. To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. It's produced by Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers, and Angelo Bautista. Joe Hardke is our technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Until next time.

Speaker 52 (51:05):


Last modified: 
July 14, 2023