There's One Huge Relationship Killer That We're Not Supposed to Talk About
Last year, Emma*, 27, was set up on a blind date with a handsome lawyer. Their first date was scheduled two weeks in advance, leaving her plenty of time to Google-stalk him beforehand.
"I fixated on the few facts I had — basically, the headshot from his LinkedIn and law firm bio page," she told Mic. "He looked rugged and manly, with a square jaw and a great head of brown hair and stylish tortoiseshell glasses. In short: Clark Kent."
But when Emma actually met the rugged lawyer in person, her initial impressions came crashing down. The second he opened his mouth, an unequivocal deal breaker revealed itself:
The voice didn't match the picture.
"His voice wasn't freakishly high," she told Mic. "But it wasn't the deep, rugged voice I was expecting. I shouldn't have focused on it at all, but I had had such an expectation leading up to the date that I couldn't shake it."
Emma's is not an isolated incident. Justine*, a 27-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, also told Mic that she recently nixed a potential suitor based on similar grounds. She wasn't sure if she was attracted to the guy in the first place, but his voice was the straw that broke the camel's back.
"It made me think of a cartoon character, and I just got even more turned off," she said. "I don't mean to sound basic, but I want someone to be manly-sounding. Someone who can take care of me."
Why are we so shallow when it comes to high voices? If all of this sounds painfully sexist and archaic, that's because it kinda is. Much like wedding traditions or high school proms or The Bachelorette, it seems that our voice preferences are rooted in the restrictive gender archetypes dictating that men are supposed to be deep-voiced and brawny, while women are supposed to have soft, feminine voices. (Hey, let's just blame Disney.)
Nonetheless, research suggests that on the whole, humans do prefer men with deep, resonant voices to those with higher, more tinny ones. Part of this stems from biology: A 2012 Scientific American article, for instance, cites plenty of research suggesting that there's a strong positive correlation between deep voices and overall testosterone levels, which many women find attractive. A 2013 study took it further and concluded that women preferred men with deep voices because they associated them with bigger, stronger bodies.
And in what is perhaps the most disheartening study of all, 2014 research published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior determined that men who try to manipulate their voices in hopes of sounding more attractive to women were unsuccessful. Sorry, Darth.
But it's not just evolution that influences our judgments.
"There is some evidence out there that, yes, women like male voices that suggest a larger physical size," Molly Babel, a linguistics professor at the University of British Columbia, told Mic. "But there is also evidence that our assessments of vocal attractiveness also relate to more subjective social evaluations."
Although Babel didn't comment on whether such findings apply equally to men and women with high-pitched voices (hello, Fran Drescher and Janice!), research on so-called "baby voice" and the female phenomenon known as vocal fry indicates that men are just as sensitive to women's voices as women are to men's — even if they're not judged quite the same.
Those subjective social evaluations include judging women's voices for not fitting the womanly ideal, as Slate's Amanda Hess noted on the subject of creaky vocal fry. "Just as Valley Girls are perceived as overly feminine and submissive, Creaky Girls may be seen as overly masculine and derisive," she wrote.
Not only straight people care about this: When it comes to men, choosing a partner with a suitably manly voice is a particularly loaded issue in the gay community, as seen in the new documentary Do I Sound Gay? The movie takes a close look at the questions of masculinity, fear, shame and internalized homophobia associated with the stigma of having "gay voice." Among the many interviews is one with author David Sedaris, who shares his own personal story of falling in love with a man whose voice wasn't as rugged as those Sedaris grew up idealizing.
"Hugh does not sound anything like I wanted my fantasy boyfriend to sound like," he said of his long-term boyfriend's somewhat feminine timbre. "But I love him, and that's all part of the package."
In an op-ed for the Telegraph, writer Jemal Polson also highlighted the acute pressure gay men feel to serve up hot man-voice 24/7. "Hearing my voice played back to me makes me want to cut off my own ears and eat them," Polson wrote. "It awakens an intense insecurity that I harboured in my younger years, which stemmed from being berated about the way I spoke." For gay men like Polson, "sounding gay" isn't just a dating deal breaker. It's tantamount to failing to live up to a "textbook definition of masculinity."
Ditching the deal breaker: While many people Mic spoke to for this article reported that "high," "nasal" or "nerdy" pitches were among their biggest turn-offs, not everyone is walking around searching for their own Barry White. In fact, some said there is such a thing as a voice being too deep.
"High and nasally are bad, but too deep is also no bueno," 28-year-old Sandra* told Mic. "Or if they sound like they've smoked 1,000 cigarettes. A little rasp can be hot, but full rasp is not."
The better news is that while men can't change their voices to conform to wildly arbitrary standards of attractiveness nor can women, those of us dating them can stop viewing voices as deal breakers and instead see them as the minor, unimportant physical traits that they are. After all, a recent study suggested that the more you get to know and fall for a person, the less their physical attractiveness matters.
The same is probably true for our voices. Even if you don't have a smooth baritone dripping in raw, masc confidence (which is not the name of a new fragrance by Tim McGraw, but probably should be), your partner probably won't care. Because falling in love isn't about finding the partner with the perfect baritone or mellifluous lilt. It's about embracing the entire package — even if they don't exactly sound like Clark Kent.
* Names have been changed to allow individuals to speak freely on private matters.