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What Makes Us Change the Way We Speak to Different People?

Everyone’s got a ‘phone voice’

I whisper when I order food at a restaurant, muzzling the deeper nodes in my vocal chords until I sound like Michael Jackson in interviews. The reason: I used to work in the service industry, so I’m all too familiar with loud, obnoxious assholes. My mouthing my every order as innocuously as I can is my way of balancing the volume of the world order.

That’s not the only place I change my speech patterns either. Any time I’m in a job interview, I’ll readily replace “explain” with “elucidate” when I’m trying to hide my various fuck-ups (I mean, “attempting to obfuscate my incompetence”). It’s silly, but it feels like it happens on a subconscious level, something that just occurs any time I know my skills are being interrogated.

I take comfort, though, in knowing I’m far from the only person who changes their speech pattern as the situation appears to demand. “The components that people modulate, depending on the situation, include their vocabulary, the rate at which they speak and the pitch that they use,” explains Julia Hobbs, a speech pathologist in L.A.

As for why people do this, Hobbs says it has everything to do with emotions. “We’re very effective non-verbal communicators,” she explains. “I work with a lot of adults who will get complaints from employers that their presentation isn’t as good as it could’ve been because they sound nervous. Some people are instinctively better at hiding their emotions.”

According to Hobbs, there are a few ways that people can interpret someone’s communication pattern, but mostly it boils down to their pacing. “When people talk about what grade level someone is speaking at, they’re referring to that person’s vocabulary and their grammar,” explains Hobbs. “If you’re talking about how eloquent they are when they speak, that has less to do with vocabulary and more with their delivery.”

The key to someone being a great communicator, says Hobbs, is the rate of their speech and the clarity in their delivery. “The key thing is their rate of speaking, and whether they drop off the endings of words or compress the middle of words,” says Hobbs. “If you’re listening to someone and you have to break the code of their delivery, you’re not going to like what they’re saying.”

That’s why we’re taught from an early age that it’s important to pronounce words correctly (which, in turn, is why you tend to over-pronounce or use unnaturally verbose language in situations where you feel judged). “The baseline for speech competence by most people’s standard is at the third or fourth grade level,” explains Hobbs. “That’s what the common man’s reading level is.”

Now, to some, that level of speech seems relatable and honest — to others, it marks you out as a stupid. Take a recent analysis that assessed the first 30,000 words spoken by each president in office, for example: After ranking them on the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level scale, as well as more than two dozen other common tests analyzing English-language difficulty levels, researchers found that our current president speaks at the fourth-grade level — the lowest of the last 15 U.S. presidents. How people feel about this is wildly different depending on the person (no surprises there).

Still, the world is gradually edging toward a more casual vernacular. “Everybody has become more casual, no one cares if they use bad grammar,” says Hobbs. “I work with a guy who’s a brilliant venture capitalist, and he says that he doesn’t want to sound too smart because he doesn’t want to come across as pompous.”

Hobbs attributes this “dumbing down” in our society to social media. “Social media hasn’t done one thing to improve communication,” she says. “We’ve all become more isolated, and so our communication patterns don’t seem to have the same level of importance as they did before.”

She cites old movies as evidence that it didn’t used to be this way: “Those actors annunciated every word,” she argues. “They produced every syllable, every nuance. People today, they mumble. They’re too cool to put much effort.”

Which is a fair comment if you’re referring to indie mumblecore movies, of course, but it does seem to ignore the much more realistic dialogue — complete with mumbled delivery — that was common to movies of the 1970s, before the rise of the blockbuster and a more theatrical, precise style of dialogue that’s dominated mainstream movies ever since.

Hobbs’ point, though, is that we should never underestimate the importance of sounding intelligent. “We’re judged by how we look, then by how we sound,” says Hobbs. “People will decide in about 30 seconds whether you’re worth listening to.”

With that in mind, it’s a wonder my meal ever arrives correctly at restaurants.