science of us

Is My Voice Attractive?

Photo: CSA Images/Getty Images/Vetta

For years, I’ve thought dating apps should come with a little widget so people can record themselves saying hello or counting to ten. There are some dates I wouldn’t have gone on had I heard the person’s voice beforehand, and I’m sure the reverse is true. Sometimes a voice just sounds “right,” and sometimes it doesn’t, in the same way that sometimes a person smells “right,” for whatever reason, and sometimes they don’t.

I once became infatuated with someone I thought I knew through the internet, but when we met and I heard his voice, everything changed. Longfellow wrote: “The human voice is the organ of the soul,” which I cribbed from a Psychology Today post on how to improve your own speaking voice — apparently a diaphragm voice is better than a chest voice, which is better than a mouth voice, all of which are better than a nasal voice.

Although studies have found that both men and women with “attractive voices” are thought to be “warmer, more likable, honest, dominant, and more likely to achieve” — and they also have more sexual partners and may be more likely to engage in infidelity — the qualities that make a voice attractive are slightly less clear.

For men, an attractive voice is fairly straightforward: a lower one is good, as it indicates size, strength, and reproductive prowess (or does it?), while hints of breathiness also seem to be preferable. But for women, it seems to be more complicated. Higher voices signal reproductive fitness, femininity, and smaller body size, and while it stands to reason that women would try to accentuate these qualities by speaking in correspondingly high voices — and some studies confirm this — other studies find that women tend to speak in lower voices around men they’re trying to attract.

Why is this? No one is entirely sure.

Researchers in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior puzzled over this seeming paradox, after their study found that women went against the high-voice hypothesis and lowered their voices around men they liked. They speculated that speaking in a lower voice might be a learned thing, based on stereotypes: There “appears to be a common stereotype in our culture that deems a sexy female voice as one that sounds husky, breathy, and lower-pitched,” they write. And “voice manipulation may be a learned behavior based on sexual voice stereotypes rather than actual vocal characteristics of attractiveness.” (Also: “Perhaps when a woman naturally lowers her voice, it may be perceived as her attempt to sound more seductive or attractive, and therefore serves as a signal of her romantic interest.” The motivation to “display a sexy/seductive female voice,” they go on, “may conflict with the motivation to sound more feminine and/or reproductively fit.”)

Is this a new, cultural thing? Or have we always been trying to talk low and seductively? As far back as 1979, at least, it was demonstrated that a “sexy voice” is a lower one: In a study where participants were asked to speak sexily, both men and women “greatly decreased the pitch of the voices,” with women lowering theirs even more dramatically than men did.

In general, women speak with lower voices today than we did 50 years ago, apparently, which some researchers credit to shifting male-female power dynamics. (Also, fun voice fact: Swedish women speak in lower voices than American women do, while Dutch women may speak with the lowest voices of all, and Japanese women the highest.)

But what is the point of all this? While lower voices correspond to more success at work, do they correspond to sexual/reproductive attraction, too? Do men prefer women with lower voices or what? Or are all of our sultry efforts misguided?

A 2013 PLoS One study suggest our efforts may indeed be misguided, finding that while women consistently prefer men with low voices (indicating strength and virility, theoretically) men prefer women with high voices (indicating femininity and smallness, theoretically). A huge caveat for that study, however, is that they used robotic voice samples, and those samples were insane.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago, the latest study on voice attractiveness and manipulation, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, found that men preferred women with lower voices — as did outside voice “raters” (something I’d love to be).

It was the first study on voices to take the subjects out of the laboratory and into a real-world attraction scenario: a speed-dating event. Like some of the earlier studies, this one found that everyone — men and women — lowered their voices when talking to potential mates, but that women did so in a more confounding way.

The women in the study tended to speak in higher voices “toward men they selected as potential mates,” but in lower ones “toward men who were most desired by other women and whom they also personally preferred.” In other words, they used higher voices on the men they said “yes” to but who had less than 50 percent desirability ratings from the rest of the women, but lower voices for the men they also said yes to, but who had higher than 50 percent desirability ratings among the rest of the women there. If that makes sense, which it kind of doesn’t.

Hmm. It’s complicated, although the complication squares with the mystery of attraction itself.

In any case, the men preferred the women with the lower-pitched voices. The researchers don’t quite know why, although they speculate that it could be in response to a woman “signalling sexual interest and intimacy to a man,” via our society’s current socially accepted methods. Or it could be in response to a woman communicating “social dominance or a confident and mature persona, as people with low-pitched voices are often attributed traits such as competence, trustworthiness and leadership.”

The intimacy part rings true to me. My personal theory is that speaking in a low voice draws the interlocutor in, inviting them to share a private moment on a more intimate frequency.

Writing this, I realized that while I generally try to speak in a lower register, there’s one person who brings out a girlier, higher one in me, which I can always hear ringing in my own ears after we spend time together, and I wonder “what the heck was that about” — although maybe I get it more now.

Is My Voice Attractive?