Some young women routinely talk in a girlish tone of voice. Their voice is sing-song, they speak in a breathy way, and their statements end on a questioning note. They seem to be eternally smiling, no matter how serious the subject at hand. Their body language has an impish quality—soft and demure. They sound like seven-year-old girls, not adult women. While higher voices are natural to females because they have shorter vocal folds than men, the trait is exaggerated in women with little-girl voices.
Unfortunately, if the habit continues into middle age, their voices begin to sound shrill and ear-splitting. Their cries of merriment sound more like the cackle of chickens than the deeper-pitched laughter of mature women.
In a business setting, these girl-women aren’t perceived as having the executive presence necessary to command respect. They don’t grow in their roles or advance their careers. Some, older women, reaching an age where they realize that their abnormally high voices are more of a handicap than an asset, employ vocal coaches to help them overcome their years-long habit. While higher voices are governed partly by DNA, they are also a consequence of unconscious intention. Despite protestations of a desire for job advancement, these women continue in old speaking patterns—often because they don’t realize the negative effect.
Subconsciously, they wish to minimize their power. They have emotional conflicts about the influence they’ve earned over some men and many women. By speaking like little girls, they throw off the cloak of power. Employing a tone of voice that goes up at the end, a woman can leave the impression that she is simply asking questions or making suggestions rather than mandating decisions outright. While this approach may make colleagues feel less intimidated, it erodes a woman’s influence overall and has an unfavorable effect on her opportunities for the future.
One purpose served by the little-girl voice is to disarm others and stave off any negative input. When a woman makes herself sound young and vulnerable, she sends the message that she can’t or won’t defend herself, so her listeners shouldn’t be rough on her. She is, in fact, protecting herself from challenges—negative feedback and unpleasant news—all of which a professional person needs to be prepared for in order to grow and develop. By avoiding consequences in the present, she erects a barrier to her long-term career advancement.
In a sense, the little-girl’s voice works. Although many women are unaware of their habit of using a sing-song tone of voice, they are smart enough to know that something in their communication pattern is getting them what they want. They don’t have to deal with difficult conversations and negative feedback nearly as often, and they’re less accountable for tough decisions. However, what may temporarily boost their confidence results in a loss of credibility over the long haul.
Young women living in today’s pop culture get little incentive to act like grown-ups. Even the wardrobes celebrated by the media tend to be childish. Many outfits look more like Halloween costumes. With all the games and impulse gratification offered by various forms of media, we live in a cultural climate of juvenile proportions. For young women, acting like a school-girl doesn’t even ring false. If anything, resorting to age-appropriate behavior seems like a downhill ride to becoming an old maid.