The other day my wife called our daughter Rebecca who works as a banquet manager at a well-known Chicago hotel. She picked up instantly and in the most friendly, upbeat voice responded, “Hello, this is Rebecca. How may I help you.” “This is your mom calling”, my wife said. “Oh, hello, mom”, we heard next, but now the voice was flat, all the energy and enthusiasm suddenly drained out of it. The contrast was startling.
“Is that how you react to your mother?” to which she replied, “Now this is my normal voice; the other is how I answer potential customers.” Having explained somewhat satisfactorily that sudden loss of affect, the conversation continued at conventional vocal levels.
What struck me is how many of us employ a variety of voices (signaling, for example, sarcasm, anger, joy surprise, etc.) and are able to shift rapidly from one to another, depending upon circumstance, just as we quickly assume different roles and behaviors in the course of a day. I’m certain most everyone has noticed how we – and that includes most of us – pick up the phone (when the caller is not identified) and assume an aggressive and unmistakably unfriendly tone of voice in the event a solicitor is on the other end of the line (which can prove to be mildly embarrassing when the caller is a close acquaintance). Observe also how an individual engaged in a heated exchange with someone present will upon picking up the phone assume a dramatically different voice, especially when the person is someone whose call is most welcome. An angry voice is likely when one is phoning to complain, a sweet and gentle one when you’re requesting a favor or special treatment. Then there are the folks who are total telephone turnoffs, uncomfortable in their role, their voice hesitant and monotonal, lacking the slightest animation (but who during face-to-face encounters are entirely engaging).
Talking to a baby usually involves a different set of vocal sounds and content as adults attempt, verbally at least, to “get down on all fours”, elevating their pitch to unnatural levels while tossing in nonsense sounds in an attempt to communicate at some primal level. Addressing the very elderly may involve a similar approach. One speaks far more slowly, pronounces words more clearly, raises one’s voice and is prepared to repeat oneself if there’s a lack of comprehension.
Then there is the resort to whispering. Some of it is purely functional as when one is at a concert, entering a room where an infant is asleep, or whispering “sweet nothings” into a lover’s ear. But more notable is the whispering to suggest that a secret is being divulged (and thus must not be overheard) a conspiracy revealed or a nasty remark uttered, which conveyed in a whisper implies that it’s off the record.
The repertoire of human behaviors is considerable and any inventory of such must include extensive variations in our voices which come regularly into play and help get us through the day.