I'm Speaking Up About My Annoying Voice

My mom started telling me I had an annoying voice when I was seven or eight. And according to opinionated strangers, it's never gotten better.

Sep 12, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

I was probably eight or nine years old when my mother first started trying to change how I spoke.

“Modulate your voice,” she’d tell me over and over and over again. As a child who had an extremely difficult time showing any emotion in front of my mother, it always felt like a slap in the face to be told to control myself, to express myself with restraint, that my natural voice was unpleasant to those around me.

So instead of “modulating” my voice, I’d just stop talking. It was easier than trying to mimic her affected way of speaking, a low and even tone that sounded forced and unnatural, void of any real feeling. 

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Second Grade: Still young enough not to know how annoying my voice was. Also: that's a school uniform, lest you think I'd have left the house in that under my own volition. 

As I grew older, my voice only became more irritating to her. Years of summer camp with kids from L.A. taught me to speak in a lilting “Valley Girl” accent. It was unrefined and, I could tell, embarrassing to her. How desperately she’d wanted me to pick up a British accent the year we lived in London, even going so far as to try to get me to call her “Mummy” when I was already at the age where I referred to her as “Mom.”

But thinking about how my words would sound before they came out of my mouth wasn’t something in which I was interested. If I had something to say, I just wanted to say it. I didn’t want to stop, breathe, and then force it out in a way that was unnatural.

And so, despite her pleas, I kept speaking the way “God” intended -- with my words coming out of my mouth however they wanted.

I’ve known since I was pretty young that my voice wasn’t an accurate representation of my intellect. It's sing-songy and high in pitch; people have always been quick to label me as an airhead despite the fact that I’m anything but. One of my dearest friends always tells me that he loves to introduce me to his friends because he knows they’ll automatically judge me as a moron based on my voice, but that before the evening’s over I’ll have won them over with my quick wit and intelligence. (I say that not to brag, but rather to elucidate the point at hand.)

And though my voice also makes me sound a lot younger than I am, that’s not actually a benefit when it comes to things like job interviews or client calls. I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if I’m paid less because I look and sound younger than I am. A former boss once scoffed when someone told her one of my ideas.

“She’s only 25,” she said, writing me off completely. I was 33. Not that it should have mattered.

My voice is so distinct that I’ve had more than one person tell me they were in another room when they heard my voice on television and did I really have sex on a balcony on 2nd Avenue in the East Village? (Friends don’t let friends drink margaritas and film HBO "Real Sex" on-the-street interviews.)

Still, it never bothered me. It was my voice. And it sounded just fine inside my head, so what was it to me? 

Not being bothered by it though seemed to drive my mother crazy. On a visit to Wilmington, N.C., when I was in graduate school, she took me and a friend out to dinner at a restaurant we couldn’t afford on our stipends and student loans. I don’t remember how my voice came up, but somehow it did.

“I know my voice is…” I stumbled, looking for the right words.

“Grating,” my mother said in a way that left no room for argument. 

I saw the look of shock on my friend’s face -- that a mother could say something so hurtful to her daughter was clearly foreign to her. And she saw how hurt I was. That all I wanted was to please my mother, but how was that possible if even the sounds that came out of my mouth were annoying to her?

After 26 years of living carefree about my voice, she’d finally taken me down. I looked into speech therapy. I caveated my excitement with, “I know my voice is really annoying.” And when people (only ever boys) made fun of it, it felt like they were mocking the most vulnerable thing about me.

My voice was clearly holding me back, I thought. Thank god I’d chosen writing as a profession. (Although one might wonder if perhaps, subconsciously, that’s why the written word became my most effective means of communication. I’ll leave that one for my therapist, though.)

The sad thing is that might actually be true. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “research shows the sound of a person’s voice strongly influences how he or she is seen.” Even more depressing? “The sound of a speaker’s voice matters twice as much as the content of the message.” Turns out, despite how open minded we think we may be, as soon as we hear someone speak, we form an opinion about her.

The article goes on to assure people with annoying voices that they can be “strengthened or improved through therapy, coaching, or feedback” and that people with irritating voices who say, “That’s just the way I talk; people shouldn’t judge me” are being “defensive.”

In fact, one of the human resource consultants interviewed for the article recommends employers “screen job seekers based partially on their voices.” This prevents the horrifying moment when managers who’ve hired based on skills and experience realize that “a new hire’s speech patterns are annoying.”

As far as I know, my voice has never prevented me from getting a job. Perhaps I’m fooling myself, but I like to think that my upbeat and chipper way of speaking is actually a pleasant experience for the clients I speak with on the phone. Sure, they may think they’re working with a 16-year-old (I never see them face-to-face), but when they see what a good job I do, I assume they’ll be happy, regardless of my girlish lilt.

For the most part, I’ve gotten over my annoying voice. Transcribing hours of interviews and being forced to listen to yourself will do that. In fact, I almost, dare I say, have started to like my own voice. Perhaps I’m being “defensive” and maybe it would behoove me to seek professional help, but I’m working on accepting myself for who I am. Regardless of what my mother thinks. If someone wants to discriminate against me based on the way I speak, that his loss, not mine.

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Luckily, my singing voice is actually quite pleasant. Although I doubt the people at the table next to me in the restaurant when this was taken would agree. Sorry, people. But don't play "Puff the Magic Dragon" if you don't want me to sing along!

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A few hours after I finished writing the first draft of this article, I went out to meet some friends for birthday drinks. I only knew one or two people there, but we were all having fun, laughing the afternoon away. The longer I hung out, the more I opened up, trusting these people, thinking that perhaps they were new friends.

A few hours into it, someone new joined the group. We were talking about Burning Man and he asked what that was. I was shocked. We live in San Francisco! Who doesn’t know what Burning Man is? And so I asked him, “Wait. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” in an excitedly curious, yet totally baffled voice. 

He looked at me to answer, but before he could get the words out the guy next to him looked me straight in the eyes and with disgust said, “Where is that VOICE from?”

I wish I could say that I stood up to him, told him that was mean and hurtful and unnecessary. Instead, I backtracked, apologizing, telling him that I knew my voice was annoying. I got quiet. Stopped talking. And shortly thereafter, excused myself and went home. In short: I had the most un-Daisy-like reaction of all time. It’s what always happens in that situation.

No matter how confident I am most of the time, having someone judge my voice makes me feel like they’re telling me to stop talking. That nothing that comes out of my mouth is worth the agony of having to listen to me speak. That I should just sit there and nod pleasantly while the rest of the group laughs and whoops it up. And even though I want to rebel against that, it’s hard to speak up when speaking up is the very thing that annoyed the person in the first place. 

But as I said before, I am not going to go to speech therapy or modulate my voice or “be seen and not heard.” Perhaps that makes me “defensive” in some people’s eyes, but to me, it’s all about owning who I am and being happy in my own skin. Sure, it’s a struggle, but I’m not going to let random dudes (and why WHY is it always men?) make me feel bad about a part of me that’s wonderfully distinct. After all, I had a short blonde bob in those HBO interviews. How else is anyone going to know it’s me?