Before you open your mouth, there are nonverbal cues that will give your feelings and emotions away. Facial expressions can show how much money you make and body postures can reveal how powerful you really feel.
We only get more transparent when we actually open our mouths and start talking.
A new study in PLOS One found that we unconsciously change our voices depending on a person’s social status. If we meet someone who is powerful or prestigious, we perceive them as dominant people. When faced with dominant personalities, we can go into fight-or-flight mode. Researchers found that the pitch of our voices will go higher or lower depending on if we’re intimidated by our proximity to power or if we feel in control of the situation.
To find this out, University of Stirling researchers put 48 students in a simulated job interviews for an administrative assistant position. They were shown the faces, job titles, and employee testimonials of three potential employers that were made to look either dominant, prestigious, or neutrally average.
For the highly prestigious employer, students would read about the employer’s fancy titles and read employee testimonials that said, “He is well-respected in his field.”
For an aggressive, dominant employer, students would read intimidating employee feedback that said: “He likes to be in control and acts pretty tough.”
Then, the students would be recorded as they went through a mock interview with each of these potential employers and explained why they were the best candidate for the job.
Dominant people lower their voices at dominant people
How the students self-rated their own status predicted how they would act towards the employers. Students who had dominant personalities would lower their voices towards prestigious and dominant employers.
Students who ranked themselves as less dominant would make their voices go higher in interactions, demonstrating that they were not trying to compete with the interviewer.
That makes sense. A low fundamental frequency has been linked to sounding dominant in male and female voices.
But lowering your voice is not necessarily seen as the best course of action in interviews.
“A high-pitched voice sounds relatively submissive,” the study’s authors told Quartz. “Using a high-pitched voice would signal to an employer that the interviewee is not a threat, and may serve to avoid confrontations.”
In other words, your future boss doesn’t want to hear aggression. Sounding deferential may get you farther.
Your dominant voice can also reveal other ugly parts of your personality. A separate study the researchers cite found that surgeons with dominant voices rated lower in concern and anxiety. Surgeons with dominant voices were more likely to have been sued for malpractice. But sometimes, the pitch of your voice can be a positive clue. Sounding dominant has been linked to financial success. A 2013 study found that male CEOs with deeper voices managed larger companies, and made more money.
Above all, what these studies show is that our voices are one more social cue outside our conscious control that can reveal how we measure up in the workplace—and where we may be lacking.