What Cringing at Your Own Dumb Voice Reveals About You

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So you hate the sound of your own voice. This complaint has become something of a cliché, perhaps especially on media Twitter, in that journalists routinely confess that they are procrastinating an interview transcription because hearing their own recorded voice is so unbearable. And yet of course the hatred itself existed long before Twitter; studies dating back to the 1960s have demonstrated that people dislike hearing recordings of their own voices, whereas listening to playbacks of friends’ or strangers’ voices didn’t bother them.

It’s something about hearing you, in other words, that you specifically find cringeworthy. And this is rather strange, if you think about it. You listen to yourself all day long. Why would a recording of your voice make you feel uncomfortable?

The unfamiliarity is quite literally all in your head, although you’re not imagining things. When you hear yourself speak, you’re essentially hearing a distorted version of your own voice; on the other hand, when you hear a recording of your voice — I’m very sorry to say this — you’re hearing yourself the way everyone else hears you. The distinction here is caused by the physiology of your own skull. You hear yourself in surround sound, in a way, in that the sound waves from your own speech reach your ears through two separate pathways. There is air conduction, which means that when you speak, the sound travels through the air and into your ear canals, causing the eardrums to vibrate. From there, the sound is carried through the little bones of the ear until it arrives at the cochlea, the sensory organ that contains nerves connected to the brain’s auditory regions, where the sound waves are interpreted into something meaningful. This, in fact, is how you perceive not only your own voice, but any sound at all.

But when you hear yourself talk, the sound also comes from an extra speaker of sorts: the bones of your skull. This is known as bone conduction, meaning that when your vocal cords vibrate to produce speech, that movement also causes the bones of the skull to vibrate, and this, too, is registered in the cochlea. Bone conduction transmits lower frequencies as compared to air conduction, so this is one reason why your voice sounds so unfamiliar when it’s played back to you. When you hear the sound through your own head, your brain perceives it as being lower-pitched than it really is, because the transmission via the skull made it sound that way.

Studies from the late 1960s have suggested that people are so surprised by the way a recording of their voices sounds that they fail to recognize it. One 1967 study found that just 38 percent of volunteers were able to identify their own voices immediately, though another study published that year found that 55 percent of participants were able to recognize themselves when given a longer period — 15 seconds — to respond. But more recent research has undercut this notion of unfamiliarity. In 2008, researchers reported that people could ID their own voices with an accuracy rate of up to 96 percent; a later study, published in 2010, found a similar proficiency in its participants, who could pick out their voices about 89 to 93 percent of the time. It’s not too difficult to figure out why people have gotten better at this: Smartphones and other technologies make it easy to record high-quality voice memos or videos, so people simply have more opportunities to hear themselves today than they did in the 1960s.

Fine, you say, but just because I know what I sound like doesn’t mean that I like it. On the contrary — chances are, you do like it very much. In a fascinating study from 2013, researchers at Albright College and Penn State Harrisburg played their study participants a variety of different voices and asked them to rate how attractive they thought the unseen speaker would likely be. The twist, however, was that the experimenters did not tell the volunteers that they would also be rating recordings of their own voices. Their results showed that people tended to unknowingly prefer their own recorded voices; they rated their own voices as being more attractive as compared to the other voices they heard, and their ratings for the attractiveness of their own voices were on average higher than the ratings that other people gave them. The researchers note, by the way, that the volunteers were informed afterward that one of the voices they heard was their own, and that they were surprised at the knowledge. (An aside: In the studies mentioned earlier, where people accurately identified their voices, the researchers told them from the start that one of the voices they’d be hearing would be their own. The scientists behind this 2013 study, on the other hand, gave their volunteers no such hint, suggesting that unless you tell people to listen for it, they likely won’t recognize their own voices.)

So you do like your voice, this study says, even if you don’t know you do. You probably, in fact, like your voice more than I would like your voice. And yet so many people still say that when they hear recordings of themselves, it makes them cringe. How can this be?

The psychology and physiology of what makes us cringe is not well studied, which is a shame, especially when you consider how often the feeling occurs in everyday life. (“Please clap.”) But you could think of a cringe as a shock of self-consciousness. Some psychologists and philosophers see a divide between the experience of the “lived body” and the “corporeal body,” and argue that emotions that elicit self-consciousness cause the two to collide. As a pair of researchers wrote in a 2006 paper on embarrassment:

[I]n moments of disruption, such as in illness, clumsiness, or exposure to the judgments of other people, the lived body becomes an object of our attention. In these moments, the body appears as the corporeal body. … The corporeal body can therefore be conceptualized as the body-subject turned toward itself as a body-object. Embarrassment and the “self-conscious” emotions seem to always occur within dynamics in which the lived body is momentarily reduced to the corporeal body.

Put another way: Most of the time, most of us live inside our own heads, imagining that the person we believe we are presenting to the world is indeed the person that the world sees. Cringeworthy moments yank us out of that fantasy, forcing us to at least briefly take an outsider’s view of ourselves. In that same 2006 paper, the researchers — Brent Dean Robbins of Daemen College and Holly Parlavecchio of Allegheny College — include a long first-person account of a college student’s recent cringeworthy moment: slipping and falling in front of the entire dining hall. In the telling of the story, the student switches from first-person to second-person when describing the fall:

As I was falling everything felt like it was moving in slow motion, but it came so quick and unexpected. … [Y]ou could feel yourself physically falling but you couldn’t do anything else to stop it and you knew you were gonna end up on the ground, but it came so quick, it was before you realized what had happened.

Similarly, hearing a recording of your voice pulls you into this observer’s perspective. It’s a lot like seeing photos of yourself, and how weirdly different you often appear from the version of yourself that you see in the mirror.

If hearing your own voice doesn’t bother you, it may simply mean you have higher self-esteem than the rest of us, as science writer Rolf Degen has theorized. Or it may just mean you’re used to it — research has shown that radio announcers, for instance, are able to nearly perfectly recognize their own voices, and the more familiar people are with something, the more they tend to like that thing. But coming to terms with the sound of your own dumb voice can also mean coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that the “you” who exists in your own head is often very different from the “you” that the world sees and hears. I, for one, do not feel equal to that task at the present moment, and so I think I will procrastinate on this particular interview transcription just a bit longer.

What Cringing at Your Own Voice Reveals About You