From the sound of your voice I thought you were older! – Language perception across different age groups

by Johanna Mechler

Have you ever heard a voice on air and immediately had a really clear image of the person in your mind, but when you saw a photo, they looked completely different? Maybe the person was actually younger or older than you had expected. This happens to all of us! How we perceive voices and how we connect them to ideas about who we think that person is, is a really complex process.

That’s exactly what I look at in my PhD. I am especially interested in age and what part it plays in how we judge different voices. At the moment I am trying to find out how the age of a speaker affects as how professional they are perceived. Are these evaluations really only related to the age of the speaker? Which role do, for example, the pitch of their voice or their gender play?

from pixabay

Of course, there are always two sides to perception: the person who speaks and the person who listens. So, what about the listener influences how they perceive a voice? We know that a range of factors such as listeners’ cognitive dispositions may impact onhow they perceive and evaluate voices – but there are only a few studies that deal specifically with the role of listeners’ age.

To learn more about the effect of speaker and listener age on perception, I conduct several online surveys in the Tyneside conurbation. The surveys usually consist of two parts: an experimental part in which participants are asked to listen and rate different sound samples; and a questionnaire part in which they are asked to provide some background information on themselves, for example, attitudes towards the region or the local dialect. As I am interested in whether or not older speakers rate the sound samples differently than younger speakers, I am recruiting a diverse group of participants from Geordie Facebook groups, local volunteer groups, and students and staff from Newcastle University. The sound samples are all taken from interviews with Tyneside speakers who vary in age, gender, and social class.

Let me introduce you to two of the speakers: The first speaker’s name is Amelia[1]. She is a 19-year-old university student who sounds “young” because her voice has a relatively high pitch. She was recorded together with a friend, and she usually speaks quite quickly and colloquially. When older, comparatively conservative listeners hear her voice, they are very likely to rate her as less professional, while younger listeners would potentially rate her as more professional.

The second female speaker is called Shannon. She is 45-year-old teacher with a lower voice who sounds more “standard”. She is much more likely to be evaluated as “professional” by the same older, conservative listeners.

I hope that my studies will help us better understand how we evaluate younger and older voices and therefore how we judge people based on their voices – and how we can counteract implicit bias and people being judged unfairly. Because we are much more than our voices!

[1] All names are pseudonyms.

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