By Markham Heid
November 2, 2017

Whether or not you’re familiar with vocal fry, you’ve heard someone using it. Kim Kardashian’s use of vocal fry is notorious, as is Zooey Deschanel’s. (Searching for a good vocal fry example? YouTube has you covered.)

But vocal fry isn’t just for celebrities; all people employ it to some extent. And it seems to be gaining popularity among young people, which may be bad news for their job prospects.

What is vocal fry?

Vocal fry involves dropping the voice to its lowest natural register, which changes the way a person’s vocal folds vibrate together. Those changes create inconsistencies in the vibrations and lend the speaker’s voice a subtly choppy or creaky quality—which is why vocal fry is sometimes referred to as “creaky voice,” says Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.

There’s some evidence that people respond negatively to vocal fry. In a 2014 study, Klofstad and colleagues found that recordings of speakers who used vocal fry were judged harshly by listeners, compared to recordings of people speaking normally. These negative judgments were strongest when both the speaker and listener were women. “Young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable,” Klofstad and his colleagues write.

Other research has found that young women who use vocal fry are perceived as hesitant and nonaggressive—but also educated and upwardly mobile.

The research right now is confusing and sometimes conflicting. But it has fueled a debate about whether young women are being unfairly scrutinized for their speech patterns.

Male vocal fry vs female vocal fry

Women aren’t the only ones who use vocal fry. In a forthcoming study of 18- to 22-year-olds, researchers at Centenary College of Louisiana found that young men not only fry, but they do so more than young women. “Our data showed that men spend about 25% of their time speaking using fry, while women use it about 10% of the time,” says Jessica Alexander, an assistant professor of psychology at the college.

While men were the more frequent fryers, they employed the speech habit differently than women. “Men were dropping down into that lower register on and off throughout their utterances, while women were using it mostly at the end of utterances,” Alexander says.

Men typically have lower overall pitch than women, she says, so their voices descend into fry more easily. “Women have to dip further into their range to go into fry, so we may pick up on it more when women do it,” she adds.

The way some young women are using vocal fry may sound less natural or more pronounced, Klofstad says. “We tend to view behaviors that aren’t normal as untrustworthy,” he says. That may explain the negative bias against women fryers that his research turned up.

Is vocal fry becoming more common?

That’s up for debate. “As a social affectation, it has gotten more attention of late, largely due to reality stars like the Kardashians or Bachelorette contestants, who anecdotally seem to use this form of speech frequently,” Klofstad says. While vocal fry isn’t new, “there’s some evidence that it’s being used more regularly in speech,” Alexander adds.

Vocal fry may be spreading

It’s well established that people mimic one another’s posture, mannerisms and even their speech patterns in order to establish trust and facilitate conversation.“People modify their behaviors to more closely align with others,” says Stephanie Borrie, an assistant professor of speech language pathology at Utah State University. Sometimes referred to as “social mirroring” or entrainment, this practice “just helps people feel more connected,” she says. “If we’re talking to people who use a lot of vocal fry, we’re going to use a lot of vocal fry.”

Looked at this way, she says, the question of whether creaky voice is helpful or detrimental to a speaker largely depends on context.

Her own research shows that other aspects of speech—including pitch and speed—also play a role in whether vocal fry is perceived as positive or negative. “There’s a ton of research on speech rate showing the faster you speak, the more intelligent you sound,” she says. “So all these things, not just vocal fry, have interplay in a listener’s appreciation.”

The debate—and research—about vocal fry will continue. But one thing is certain: the ways that people speak, from the words they use to the tone of their voices, change over time. (If you doubt that, just watch a film made in the 1940s or 50s, or listen to old-time radio.) If it turns out young people really are using vocal fry more than their predecessors, that speech characteristic may soon be the rule, not the exception.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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