Hate Your Voice? —

The Science of Self-Induced Cringe


It’s no secret that most people don’t like to hear themselves recorded (casually speaking at least), but why is that? Why do we cringe when we hear our voices played back, but don’t have the same reaction to say, looking in the mirror?

The Common Assumption

According to Philip Jaekl writing for The Guardian, the most common reason for why we tend to dislike the sounds of our voice is because, when we talk “we receive both sound transferred to our ears externally by air conduction and sound transferred internally through our bones. This bone conduction of sound delivers rich low frequencies that are not included in air-conducted vocal sound.”

You could liken this to when your neighbors turn up the music too loud (or you do this to your neighbors). You might barely hear the words or most of the track carried through some frequencies, but you most definitely feel other frequencies like the bass coming through the walls and floor. That’s your particular experience of the song, but not what it actually sounds like.

But depending on your recording device, it might not pick up the lower frequencies that make our voice sound “fuller” like those that come from our chest. So what you end up hearing are the higher parts that make you sound a lot different than what you’d expect.

We judge like we think we’ll be judged

That said, it seems there’s more to our revulsion than just the physical aspect. There’s an element of social perception that plays a part. Jaekl refers to psychologists Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey, who concluded in the ‘60s that we get disturbed by our voice because of the things we might have implied  even if we didn’t intend to say them:

“The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.”

In short, we thought we were signaling certain traits we hoped we embodied, but when we hear ourselves again and all the little nuances we never noticed (you ever zoom in on a super high-def image of yourself?), we’re worried about how we’ll come off to others.

According to McGill Neuroscientist Marc Pell, also quoted in The Guardian article, “we may go through the automatic process of evaluating our own voice in the way we routinely do with other people’s voices […] I think we then compare our own impressions of the voice to how other people must evaluate us socially.”

Words unspoken: paralanguage

To simplify, the things we pick up on and nitpick in our recorded voices are all part of our paralanguage, which is concerned with how not what things are said. These paralingistic features include:

  • Accent

  • Pitch

  • Volume

  • Speech rate

  • Modulation (shaping your voice, such as with a loud whisper)

  • Fluency

If you’ve ever taken issue with your accent, nasality or a speech impediment, they likely are connected to how you worry those features are perceived against what’s considered normal.

Still don’t like the sound of your voice?

You might not always have to hear the sound of your recorded voice all the time (especially unenhanced), but with the increase in online voice chats, there’s a high chance people are going to be hearing your voice through technology that just doesn’t do you justice. What can you do?

  • Reread the above: after all, the version of your voice you don’t like is being distorted by a piece of tech that doesn’t reflect how you truly sound. What’s more is that the resulting discomfort likely is all in your head in that people probably aren’t as critical of your voice as you are (but they’re probably critical of their own).

  • Forgive yourself: your voice is distinct, much like how you physically look. You can certainly take steps to make changes, but the essence is something you should embrace. You can’t change your frame, so why try and change the basic quality of your voice?

  • Thoughtful choices: continuing with the physical vs. vocal analogy, you can make thoughtful choices in clothes that flatter your body type if you wanted to. If you think of the way you speak similar to the way you dress, then you can take more care of that too. Slow down, speak clearly, simplify your words, or experiment with “styling” your voice.