A person’s voice is more than an instrument for communication. It’s also a key element of identity and expression, and helping transgender women find their voices — ones that makes them feel safe and at home in their own skin — is a major goal for speech-language pathologist Teresa Hardy, an instructor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.
“Our clients don’t want to be misgendered by other people, and we want to help them find a voice that better represents them, that they feel more comfortable with and that they can feel confident using,” said Hardy in a press release.
“In some cases, if they aren’t being read as transgender in the community, they may feel safer. Many also feel a sense of validation in people seeing them for who they are, and voice can contribute to that.”
In her research, Hardy has examined characteristics of both verbal and non-verbal communication that lead to people being perceived as male, female, or neither. But more recently, she shifted her focus away from the listener to the speaker, delving into the qualities that helped volunteers feel greater personal satisfaction in how they communicate. Her study design acknowledges that there is more than one way to construct a ‘feminine’ voice.
The study was published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.
Twenty transgender women participated in the study, and their first task was to tell a story based on a short cartoon. Each retelling was broken down using high-fidelity audio and motion capture recordings to track 12 acoustic and gestural variables, such as hand gestures, voice pitch, intonation and head movements.
The participants then rated their satisfaction with their recordings, shown to them as stick figure avatars that replicate their movements to strip away any influence of appearance. They also answered questions about their general satisfaction with their quality of life.
Based on the data, participants were more likely to be satisfied with their recordings when they used hand gestures with their palm facing down as they spoke. They were also more likely to rate their quality of life more highly if they spoke with more variation in their intonation patterns, which comes across as sounding more lively.
Looking to the speaker’s own perception of their voice removes some reliance on external expectations and cultural norms that can come with studying the listener’s perspective. With a better understanding of the speech features that correlate with higher satisfaction, Hardy hopes to enhance training targets that could help her clients experiment until they find their own unique voice.
“There’s no one way to be a feminine or masculine communicator,” added Hardy.
“We shouldn’t rely on gender biases. We should appreciate and celebrate the differences between groups of people, and within those groups, differences between individuals, their different perspectives and the diversity in communication.”