Stop! You’re hurting my ears! Learning to silence vocal fry and other bad speech habits


Chicago Tribune

In a recent television interview, Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said “y’know” 72 times in three minutes.

In a way it was refreshing to hear that long-infuriating verbal crutch resurrected with such gusto, because “y’know” has been largely eclipsed by even more annoying verbal tics.

We have uptalking, where the speaker ends each sentence with a rising intonation that makes everything sound like a question. We have the unnamed-habit where women who’ve seen too many Disney cartoons speak with a Minnie Mouse-like squeak. Then there’s the leading linguistic scourge of today, vocal fry.

It’s a fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon characterized by a speaker lowering his or her voice to an unnaturally low frequency at the end of a sentence. It has been seen (and heard) for decades, but has gained currency via the Kardashians, America’s first family of vapidity.

“These are just speech patterns that may be popularized by some famous people kids look up to,” says Claudio Milstein, a speech scientist with the otolaryngology department at Cleveland Clinic. “The good thing is most kids outgrow it.”

A speech scientist with clinical interests in laryngology and voice disorders, Milstein says that vocal fry and these other speech blips have been going on for centuries. They have been seen “in every single culture. Maybe today because of access to the media it’s more pervasive. But kids imitating ways of speaking that go with cultural shifts is nothing new.”

Expressions such as “you know” and “like,” he says, “are like crutches to fill gaps when there’s not much concept behind it.”

Joni Brander, a TV talent coach and corporate presentation trainer, agrees with Milstein that vocal fry has been around for a long time, but she points out that young people are picking it up again as a form of communication.

“It’s one thing if a singer uses it to highlight various notes, but quite another if used in conversation,” she says. “Besides being annoying and immature, vocal fry is very hard on your vocal cords, if overdone.”

Worse is popular culture’s impact on singers, Milstein says. Shows such as The Voice and American Idol have spawned a new generation of singers who are imitating people they see on TV, sometimes to their detriment.

“It’s a style of singing called belting, a lot of power. If you don’t do it in the right way this can cause injuries to the vocal folds [membranes in the larynx]. We see a number of young singers who do this with no training and they do damage.”

These vocal quirks drive people — mainly older people — crazy. And when “older” people are the ones doing the hiring out in the real world, sounding like a creaking gate or using “y’know” 72 times in three minutes may not be the best way to launch a career.

“These things give an impression to the listener that the child is less intelligent,” Milstein says.

Brander points out that in a job interview, a person has minutes or maybe only seconds to make a favorable impression.

“Young people entering the job market already have a deficit and must overcome their age and lack of experience. If they come across as immature and uneducated due to poor speech habits, their job prospects will be seriously limited.”

So it may be up to parents to guide a child in the right direction.

Milstein suggests that parents and educators stress the importance of proper communication, an interest in literature and having good role models. Let a person know that these negative forms of communication are less effective and make listeners think of them as less bright than they actually are. Of course, you can tell young people these things, he points out, but “kids will do what kids want to do.”

Brander says parents should set the bar by establishing guidelines and insisting on proper speech at home. That way, even if a teenager employs slang and other shoddy lingual habits with his or her friends, the child will know the difference when it really counts, such as in a job interview.

Unfortunately, she says, sometimes parents are unaware of their own improper speech habits and how strongly they influence their children. But for those who know better, it’s worth correcting. Or at least trying to correct.

“Just making [the child] aware that this speech may get them categorized as dumber than they are may bring enough attention,” Milstein says. “But of course, if a parent tells them something …”

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