Hearing the Self

I’m on my second day of a Digital Storytelling Workshop facilitated by the Center for Digital Storytelling. I’ll have some more things to say about it later on, but one small thing I found interesting was that many participants yesterday mentioned that they don’t like the sound of their own voice when they hear it recorded. I’ve often felt the same way, though my friends and colleagues have told me that when they’ve heard me on radio, I sound pretty much the way I do in person.

So this is an interesting puzzle. I don’t think it’s connected to a fear of public speaking. What is it about the sound of our voices when we hear them recorded that many of us find displeasing?

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5 Responses to Hearing the Self

  1. jadagul says:

    Your voice doesn’t sound the same to you as it does to everyone else. Most people hear your voice conducted through the air. When you hear your own voice it’s also conducted through the bones of your skull, which leads to a deeper resonance and cuts out a lot of the annoying inflections and nasality we put in our own voices. So a recorded version of your voice will sound to you higher, less resonant, and more nasal than you’re used to.

    This is a big problem when practicing your speaking or singing, because it’s impossible for you to hear what you actually sound like.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    That sounds right. But then it’s still a two-part reaction:

    1. That the recorded voice doesn’t sound like the voice you experience. (Whereas we don’t have any experience of seeing ourselves outside of reflections, mirrors, pictures). So it’s simply that you have an experience of voice and the recorded voice is alien to it.
    2. That the voice we hear through our own skull is actually preferable (deeper, and without nasality). That seems to me something that you could mess with technologically: I wonder if most of us would like our recorded voices more if they were made to sound like the voice we hear inside our heads.

  3. jadagul says:

    Yeah, I think both parts are important. But I think that the controlling factor in number 2 is the stronger resonance you get through the skull; I’m not sure how easy it would be to mess with that. Might be possible, though.

    Related to number 1, I’ve heard speculation that the reason so many people don’t like photos of themselves is that we’re used to seeing ourselves in mirrors, and most people aren’t perfectly symmetric. So the image you see in a photograph is different, subtly, from the one you see in a mirror, in a way that makes you uncomfortable.

  4. jpool says:

    I think that there also a third factor of “Why didn’t someone tell me I looked/sounded like this?” Often the distinction between endearing/distinctive and annoying in others is a subtle one and it can be difficult not imagine that we don’t fall into the latter camp, especially with the jarring mix of recognition/alienation mentioned above.

  5. Timothy, you’ve nailed it in that second comment. As someone who’s spent a long, long time learning what his voice sounded like in the third person, I can say with certainty that it comes down to you hearing your voice through your head instead of out of it. When you do speech therapy, you’re taught how to hear what other people hear instead of what you say; that is, you’re taught to ignore your voice and focus on how words are made by your throat. I don’t doubt that you could train yourself to sound like you sound to yourself, but the trick of it’d be to ignore the fact that, if you did that, you’d no longer sound like yourself to yourself. (You can call me Gertrude, thank you much.)

    But it wouldn’t matter anymore. I don’t hear myself in my head when I talk and haven’t in years, but no one thinks I sound like a deaf guy, so I roll with it. Of course, it took me eight years of training, and I’m not sure you’d be in for that kind of commitment just to sound like Tom Waits.

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