June 1, 2010

The role of voice in attracting mates

You can reasonably guess a person's age just by listening to their voice: the older someone is, the more likely they are to have little variation in their inflection and speed, whereas the speech of younger people mixes these up. They even try to recreate this variability in writing --

i mean omgicantfreakingbelieveit, spring break is gonna be SO sickkk, i'm not gonna lieeeeee....

tEehEe dOn't wOrry SiLLy, i tHInk aGe iS jUsT a nUmBEr

This sing-song quality may have evolved in infants in order to make the parents and other adults involved in cooperative breeding pay attention to the child. As helpless creatures, infants have only their cuteness to wield in getting others to do their bidding. Still, after awhile children stop babbling, and at puberty they stop being cute altogether to their parents. If juvenile traits are retained into adulthood, it is not in order to manipulate child-rearers but to attract mates (or perhaps to join a band of unrelated allies, if they would view someone with too-mature traits as a potential usurper / dictator).

That in turn allows us to see when females (or males) are designed to wander around the mating market. Girls retain the wrinkle-free skin of small children for many years after puberty, but at some point -- I'd guess in the mid-20s -- their bodies draw resources out of skin maintenance. Ditto for maintaining a more juvenile facial appearance, which becomes more mannish. We should expect the same to happen to the fast-and-slow rhythm and the lolly-lolly inflection of their voices.

I did some googling for "vocal inflection" and "age" but didn't find anything right away. It's hard to compare people from different ages because you really want to hear them within the same time and setting, rather than rely on your potentially biased memory, and there aren't that many places where age groups mix these days. One exception is Starbucks, where you find small children, adolescents, young adults, and every decade-group above. During my daily leisure reading break, I hear lots of these people ordering, talking to each other, and yakking into their cell phones. Of course I don't know any of their ages exactly, but there is a pretty consistent decline in vocal cuteness as they hit their mid-20s. You can accurately ballpark their ages because their clothes, accessories, and conversation topics reflect the life of a 20-something professional who's settled into some after-college job.

You'd think the decline would be gradual, but I find it's a pretty sharp drop-off from sing-song to flat metronomic snapping, with women in their later 20s sounding scarcely more feminine than 40-somethings. It's just as rapid as the earlier transition from babbling to no babbling. This suggests that it's not a gradual wear-and-tear process, whereby the parts used for vocal gymnastics just get rustier over time. It's more like a switch is thrown, which means that it's intended by the body's design plan. In this case a female's cuteness is switched off because she should have already found a mate and be in the process of raising a family by her mid-20s. Her body is transitioning into a state built for motherhood, which explains why her voice becomes a lot more nagging and barking. After all, her children aren't going to obey her based on how cute she sounds but rather how stern.

Is there a group that uses cuteness to attract mates and yet rarely plans to or is designed to raise a family? If so, we would predict them to maintain sing-song speech well into their 30s, 40s, and 50s. I don't even need to look up to see who it is when I hear something like:

Ummmmm, can i just get aaaaa.... (be quiet ho, i'm trying to order a drink) okayyy, could you like totally be my new bestest friend and get me a java chip frappucino wiiiiith... yeah, with lots of foam. omigod does that make me sound like a slut? whatever, i mean let the haters hate. oops, i'm like totally tying up the line, aren't i? omigod i love you girl, you're my savior today -- thanksssss!


  1. Of course now we need to investigate if gay men who speak as such attract more mates than those who do not.

    I'm gay and can't stand that style of speech. However I've not noticed an increase in the amount of partners people with such a speech pattern have.

    In my experience gay men most likely to speak in such a way are either very thin with an adolescent appearance or pudgy. This leads me to think that the speech is more to do with other factors (female social circle, undeveloped body/mind, or refuge in audacity) rather than attracting mates.

    Or, it could be signaling. By being flaming in public they are putting up big orange flags letting potential mates know their receptiveness.

    Of course I'm biased because, as I said, I don't find it the least bit attractive.

  2. Millionaires made a career out of turning the way teenage girls talk into a style of music - just listen to "I Like Money". The hook is just the words "look over here" with a very blatantly attention-grabbing inflection. That's all there is to it, and it's absurdly catchy. So, there's probably something to this.

  3. I have quite a few gay friends: the 'queer voice' is flaming that they are effiminate gays. those that want to hide their status don't use it, as do the 'manly' gays.

    As for the voice 'gymnastics', I think it's more gradual but linked to status changes, which can be big. I know when I talk to arbitary power holders, like retail staff or my tutors, my voice goes higher pitched.

    But when I'm rocking a fly suit and got money to burn in a swanky cocktail bar, then I add a good 5 years to myself. If not more (being 18, but the bars have an 'Ask 25 policy' for ID, which they are strict on in the UK)

  4. This is Ke$ha in a nutshell

  5. one of your best posts in years. i was just about to write about how your writing has been declining.

  6. Agnostic you should do a comparison of male voices and how they change. Male voices should peak when their sexual attractiveness peaks, around their thirties.

    Also, I wonder how much affect male speaking tone and directness has on the outcome, and whether that is an evolutionary thing.

    Also, does the variatoin male voices help or hinder their chances with women.

    - Breeze

  7. Yeah it's interesting how voices change and often it's the result of outside influences not genetics. I have a cousin whose voice changed all of a sudden at around 13 and almost 10 years later it's still quite similar. She kind of took on a typical dumb blonde word slurring voice despite the fact she is actually quite smart.

    There was also this guy that worked at the gym for a while and he had a really deep voice that really sounded forced. It probably wasn't forced at the time I heard it but at some point in his life (when he outgrew his scrawny body) he purposefully changed it.


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