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Why do so many of us change our voice on the phone?

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According to a new survey, 40% of British people change their voices on the phone. Caroline O’Donoghue on voices, class and trying to be what people want you to be

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

If you ever want to know how the world feels about you – really feels, I mean, outside of politeness or social obligation – I advise you to get a phone job. When people are talking to you on the phone, they forget that you’re a person. They instead treat you like a sort of inferior robot butler, one that they have paid a lot for and now are considering trading in for an upgrade. 

“I’m sorry, what?” says one irritable woman. “What did you say?”

I am 21-years-old and this is the first job I have ever had where I am allowed to sit down. Until now I’ve always worked in service or retail, and for the first four days of this job, I delighted in how easy it was: all you need to do is call people and chat! I like chatting! I like people! 
Three months in and I have started picking out my eyebrow hair as a form of stress relief. 
“Sorry love,” says yet another customer, “but I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” 
If it wasn’t annoyed requests for me to repeat myself, it was conversations about my accent, and where it was from. My boss eyed me with suspicion as I wasted valuable minutes saying, “Ireland. Well, Cork, actually, if you know where that is.” 
After a little while, I engaged in an oratory habit known as flattening: where you make a conscious effort to smooth down your accent, as though it were a wrinkle on a bed sheet. I avoided words that would give me away. I said “hello” instead of my natural “hiya”, and spoke in slightly lower register, like Tess McGill teaches herself to do in Working Girl. I did that thing southern English accents often do, that way of ending your sentences by elongating the last syllable. By month four, I had my Phone Voice down, and it ended up sounding like the voice of someone who attended international schools their entire life. Part American, part English, part Irish. Unplaceable. 

I avoided words that would give me away. I said “hello” instead of my natural “hiya”, and spoke in slightly lower register, like Tess McGill teaches herself to do in Working Girl

Apparently, I’m not the only person who does this. Up to 40 per cent of British people adopt a special phone voice to “seem smart”, according to a study of 2,000 people conducted by Opinium. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish – up their with the Irish in terms of “accents people are simultaneously irritated and delighted by” – rated much higher, with six out of 10 Glaswegians affecting a fake voice. And 45 per cent of people from Belfast have one, as well as a significant portion of Liverpudlians and Geordies. It’s not not hard to draw a conclusion here: simply, people who have accents that are culturally classified as working or lower class feel as though they have to, consciously or unconsciously, conceal it. 
Voices are funny things, that way. People hear you speak, and immediately dream up a back story to go with you. In Ireland, I’m from a middle class suburban neighbourhood, but in London, people hear my real voice and presume that I had an upbringing I categorically did not have. They ask about the size of the “village” I grew up in, despite being born in a city. There’s a slight air of disappointment when they realise I do not have a comprehensive knowledge of farming cows.
It’s the same for anyone with a “different” voice: you ascribe them traits based on a sort of Downton Abbey level of internal bias. The other day, I couldn’t help feeling perplexed when I saw photos of Noel Gallagher, outside of his mansion, riding a Vespa. Did I expect him to live in a semi-detached in Manchester, just because he still sounds like he’s from Manchester? Despite him being literally in Oasis? Kind of, yeah. 
The Catch-22 of all of this is that, when you do conceal your voice – flattening it into a swirling vortex of American/Indistinctly European sounds – people have a very weird reaction once they realise you’re doing it. “I would have never guessed you were Irish,” they say, their noses wrinkled in judgement, as though I am performing my nationality incorrectly. “You sound American.” 

It always makes me want to scream. “I’m doing this for you!” I want to say. “I’m doing this so YOU understand me better, so YOU don’t get confused, so YOU hear what I’m saying as opposed to thinking about how I am saying it. All of this is for your benefit, and you’re STILL giving me shit about it?” 

But I don’t do this. I smile, and I shrug, and I say that voices are funny that way. Funny ha-ha, and funny peculiar. Funny in the way that they’re one of a million little things we use to put people in boxes, so we can understand them, emotionally as well as literally. Funny, in the way that whenever you actually do get robot butlers – like Siri, or a GPS voice – they sound exactly how I try to sound on the phone: faraway and unplaceable.

I think that’s why people who have phone voices almost always end up sounding like this. Because if people can’t place you anywhere, they can’t box you in anywhere, either.  


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