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Why Your Angry Voice Sounds So Different

Do you get hot or do you go cold? The answer says a lot about the specific stress you're feeling

Anger seems like a simple enough emotion: It’s a response to a threat of some kind, a survival skill that kicks up fight, flight or freeze responses to potential harm or danger. In that sense, it’s a gift: Our now-heightened sense of awareness puts us on full alert so we can run, punch or stand still until the threat is escaped or passes. Getting pissed is, in part, one reason we stay alive.

But if the anger is about something less life-or-death — a colleague who stole an idea, a girlfriend who flirted with your best friend, a stranger driving right in front of you for 10 miles straight with his left blinker on the entire time like a moron — we can’t quite lean on mortal fear as excuse.

Still, regular fear will do just fine. Most of our everyday anger is about fear of something, just not necessarily being murdered. It’s fear of rejection, loss, powerlessness, hurt. Or it’s a secondary emotion that’s standing in for something else — shame, guilt, jealousy — that manifests as anger. The physiological response is not all that different in how it feels (agitation, yelling), it’s just for different reasons, as Elliot Cohen explains at Psychology Today:

Suppose, for example, your partner is late coming home from work on the eve of your fifth anniversary. There you are: sitting and waiting, ready to get the celebration started, and no sign of him. So you begin to think, “How could he have done this to me on our anniversary; he really must not love me, that no-good rotten bastard!” You then feel the anger swelling up in your body. Your heart starts pounding, you feel a lump in your throat and you feel jittery throughout your body. Now you are poised to give the “bastard” a piece of your mind as soon as he comes walking through the door, which includes raising your voice (yelling or screaming) or other verbally defensive behavioral responses.

But as Cohen notes, rather than go full napalm, you might instead “feign a nonchalant demeanor while you are raging inside.” Other research on the expression of anger calls categorizes this as “hot anger” or “cold anger.” In research looking at how drivers express anger when provoked on the road, the researchers note that hot anger was amped up, higher-pitched and delivered at rapid speed. Cold anger can still be very intense, but it’s accompanied by lower arousal levels, lower pitch and a more standard speech rate.

But how does it sound? When researching this post, I asked colleagues to describe their angry voices and got a slew of responses:

  • “I have a completely flat affect.”
  • “I just go dead silent.”
  • “I get loud — like, I don’t know I’m speaking loudly, I just do.”
  • “It depends on what anger, but when I get really angry I choke up a bit, so it sounds, like, more stuffy.”
  • “If I’m yelling at my sister, I get really shrill and, like, Boston-Italian accented. It’s a very flamboyant anger that is easy for her to make fun of.”
  • “My voice stays the same and I don’t frown. *dagger stare*”
  • “My voice rises until it either starts to kind of choke up (if I’m sad-angry or hesitant to blow my top) or it goes into a full-barreled yell that’s basically just cathartic, don’t-care-who’s-lookin-let-’em-gawk yelling.”

Stress and emotion take a toll on your voice. Like dogs who bare their teeth and growl when mad, the booming yell-y voice is a posturing move that enlarges the angry person to establish power. But the quiet, shaky voice is a result of anger, too, but your sympathetic nervous system is fucking with you. Though men are more likely to use anger to mask fear and assert control, and women are more likely to internalize anger, anyone can be a screamer and anyone can stonewall, to the same changes in pitch and tone.

Stress and emotion affect your voice because they cause a host of physiological responses throughout your body — responses that ladder up to the voice. After all, all voices are produced from three working parts: the lungs, larynx and articulators (teeth, mouth, tongue). The stress response can include a clenched jaw, sweating, feeling hot, increased heart rate, muscle tension and jacked-up blood pressure. Saliva and mucus decrease, and you’re suddenly more susceptible to sudden temperature changes, so there may be shivering. You can experience tremors, as well as a gut and diaphragm response. Your mouth and throat go dry, and you might experience hoarseness. All of which can lead to the angry, shaky voice just trying to get those sick burns out.

In a sense, it’s an interruption of the motor control and cognitive processing of speech, similarly to the way being drunk can make a native accent slip out. Interestingly, getting really angry can make people do that, too. (Just watch Baltimore-set The Wire and wait for English actor Dominic West to raise his voice.)

There are a number of other factors that influence what we sound like when we get pissed. There’s also the fact of how your parents expressed anger, so there’s a good chance that you’ve inherited how you act when you get upset.

And, of course, there are more options than merely Rage Case or Ice Queen when we get pissed. The more evolved among us may take a moment to cool off and then return to speak calmly about being upset, using appropriate language and coping skills that aim to connect, not injure. That actually works: When we talk through anger in a constructive way, research shows it actually cools off the amygdala, which calms down our emotional response and takes less of an emotional toll. Angry outbursts can cause heart attacks or strokes in a matter of hours.

But for those of us unable to adopt that saintly poise, there’s still hope. It is entirely possible to control your tone when you’re upset through meditation, breathing exercises and practice. Tone makes up the lion’s share of our communications; research shows our voice often reveals even more than our faces in terms of our intended message. You can also do a little detective work to figure out what’s underneath the anger, which might help you redirect it toward a healthier target.

If that’s the case, maybe until we figure out how to express our anger better, slipping into a funny accent could be our best bet — if for no other reason than the comic relief.