Social status of listener causes us to change way we speak, study finds

STIRLING, Scotland — Ever wonder why the pitch of someone’s voice gets higher when they’re speaking to you? A new study finds a listener’s social status affects the way the person conversing with them speaks.

Researchers at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom recruited 48 participants to take part in a simulated job interview in which introductory, personal, and interpersonal questions were asked.

Job interview
Say what? A new study finds that the social status of a listener affects the way a person speaking to them changes the pitch of the voice.

They found that individuals who perceived themselves as having less social status raised the pitch of their voice during their responses, likely to demonstrate that they presented less of a threat to the interviewer.

“These changes in our speech may be conscious or unconscious but voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status,” says lead researcher Dr. Viktoria Mileva in a university news release. “We found both men and women alter their pitch in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious.”

Meanwhile, those who believed that they were already at the higher ends of the social strata were unlikely to change the tone or volume of their speech with anyone, which helped communicate their level of confidence and control over the situation.

It was during the interpersonal inquiries — e.g., ones in which the subject described a complex, conflict situation— that those with a lesser socioeconomic status were most likely to lower the pitch of their voice.

The researchers emphasized that one’s place in the social hierarchy affects much more than just their manner of speech.

“Signals and perceptions of human social status have an effect on virtually every human interaction, ranging from morphological characteristics – such as face shape – to body posture, specific language use, facial expressions and voices,” explains Mileva.

Mileva emphasizes that the tendency to shift one’s pitch occurred not only amongst individuals in the workplace, but in other contexts, such as in education and recreation.

The study’s findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.


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