Culturally Modified Female Voice

March 5th, 2009

Most people with a passing familiarity with Japan, and anyone who has actually lived in Japan, is intimately familiar with the Culturally Modified Female Voice, by which I mean the extra-high voices that some (not all) Japanese women use.

There are actually two types of annoying voices, with very different roots.  The first is the nasal voice used by young sales clerks.  This one actually has a pretty good reason: clerks talk all day (constantly repeating “irasshaimase”, basically “welcome to the store”), and that can put quite a strain on the vocal cords.  You can avoid a lot of that by making your voice more nasal.  So it’s less a culturally forced voice than a sales clerk’s self-preservation trick.

The other voice, which is what most foreigners note immediately, is the high-pitched girly voice, obviously affected.  The point is often made that Japanese women strive for “cute”, and Japanese society approves of this squeaky voice as “cute”.

This is all quite true, and an indictment of Japan’s approach to women.  But lately, I’ve realized that we (in the US) have an inverse counterpart.

The American version of the culturally modified female voice is the opposite of the Japanese: it’s a deeper voice than the speaker’s presumable natural range.  Basically, it’s a consistently crackly voice.  It’s not the raspy voice of a smoker, but the same kind of voice I get when I try to speak in a lower octave than my natural speaking voice.  I hear it in podcasts all the time, especially in serious podcasts.  My guess is that it’s caused by something similar to the Japanese situation, which is cultural expectation, but in the reverse: Some Japanese females use the extra-high voice to align themselves with a cultural expectation of cute-ness / servility / what-have-you.  Some American females use the extra-low voice to show that they aren’t just cute / servile / what-have-you.  As much as America tries to be gender-blind, it’s still largely a man’s world, with men making higher salaries for the same work, etc., so I’m guessing that there’s a subconcious decision among some people to lower their voices in order to fit in the the existing hierarchy better.

Note from the author: I really struggled with phrasing here, as I’m trying to describe an interesting phenomenon, and not cast negative aspersions on the individuals involved.  None of this is meant as a negative statement on the individuals using these respective voices, nor is it meant to equate Japanese and American treatment of women. It’s just really hard to phrase this to prevent accidental offense.

4 Responses to “Culturally Modified Female Voice”

  1. linda Says:

    Have you heard the Swiffer Sweeper commercials? “Swiffurhhh Sweephurrr” I find this voice intensely irritating and affected. This voice and similar ones seem to be permeating through the media. Just an observation.

  2. bugbread Says:

    I hadn’t seen it before, but I just checked out a Swiffer commercial on YouTube. ( You’re right. It’s ridiculous.

    (Bold words indicate crackily pronounced words)

    Switch to the new and improved Swiffer Sweeper Vac, and you’ll dump your old broom. But don’t worry, he’ll find someone else. New Swiffer Sweeper Vac does more than sweep. It has a powerful vacuum to suck up the big stuff and electrostatic dry cloths to pick up the rest. It cleans better than a broom or your money back

  3. john Says:

    I thought I was the only one………..thanks

  4. Kevin Says:

    I too thought that I was the only one who noticed this. It’s annoying! Try watching a movie made in the past 10 years. Crackily voices from the majority of females.

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