There’s no doubt that a lot more goes into communication than the words we say.
Body language, inflection, eye contact—everything we do gives our listener information about us whether we like it or not. But while we try to control all of these variables, there is one that most of us have not previously considered: the actual sound of our voice. According to a new study out from the University of Stirling, how high or low we pitch our tone might give subtle clues to how powerful we feel we are in any given interaction.
And, in a job interview, that information can make or break us.
To conduct the study, researchers told study participants that they were testing a new job interviewing method where they would not have to meet face-to-face with their interviewer. They were then set up to be recorded both on video and on a microphone. Researchers then presented each subject with a card displaying the person they were to assume they were speaking with. Each card gave an image of the interviewer’s face as well as characteristics about him or her. The characteristics were formulated to give the test subject the impression that the person they were speaking to was “dominant,” “prestigious” or “neutral.” Test subjects were also asked to rate themselves by how prestigious or dominant they perceived themselves to be.
So what did researchers find after all of this?
First things first: both men and women alter the tone of their voice depending on their perception of social status in an interaction. What impacted the change in pitch related to one’s own perceived status when compared to the person on the other side of the conversation. A test subject was more likely to vary the pitch in his voice if he felt that the interviewer was more dominant than he. The test subject’s pitch variations grew even wider when he perceived that the interviewer was more prestigious than he.
people who speak with a lower, steadier vocal pitch are perceived to be more in control and less aggressive, even in contentious situations.
But this effect was most apparent among the test subjects who perceived themselves to be of the lowest social status. For the test subjects who rated themselves highly for dominance or prestige, vocal pitch variation did not change no matter how important the interviewer was perceived to be. In fact, those subjects who felt themselves to be dominant in the job interview tended to lower their overall vocal pitch and keep it in that lower register without much modulation throughout the interaction. This pitch drop was seen in both male and female test subjects.
This pitch drop is of particular interest for people who are on the job interview circuit. The researchers point out that people who speak with a lower, steadier vocal pitch are perceived to be more in control and less aggressive, even in contentious situations.
The average job interview setup seems designed to make the applicant feel lower on the food chain than the person who is asking the questions. Often this is not just perception but reality: the interviewer might have a high-level position in the company or might be sizing up the candidate to be a direct report. But the good news is, these vocal pitch modulations are clearly happening for a reason and, perhaps, a job applicant can use this knowledge to his or her advantage. If the job applicant can slightly pitch his or her voice down and keep it from rising and falling too dramatically, he or she can create the illusion of being cool, calm and in control. The interviewer may even pick up on this subtle vocal shift and—consciously or subconsciously—perceive the candidate as being more powerful and impressive than he even appeared on paper.
One thing to keep in mind for the job hunter looking to harness this vocal change for his or her own benefit: test subjects were more able to control their vocal pitch depending on what kind of questions they were being asked. In the study, test subjects were asked a few starter questions that were relatively simple and declaratory: questions like Where are you from? or What is your name? But when the test subjects were asked to discuss certain skills they did or did not possess or to explain how they would behave in hypothetical workplace scenarios, their voices were much more likely to vary in pitch. Being aware that certain types of questions can trigger vocal modulations that demonstrate insecurity can be the first step to controlling them.
When being interviewed for a job, it can be helpful to know where your voice is giving away your insecurities. Don’t give your interviewer the chance to assume that you feel weaker or less important than he is. Instead, keep your voice slightly lower and avoid varying it up or down. Then, you will gain an easy advantage by demonstrating confidence in yourself.