How does your voice subtly alter as you are introduced to foreign royalty? When you kneel before your sovereign, if you summon the courage to speak, does your voice crack, or assume the volume of a whisper.
A recent study argues that “Non-verbal behaviours, including voice characteristics during speech, are an important way to communicate social status.”
The research involved interviews with potential employers (most likely because too few individuals with royal blood were available).
We found that vocal modulations were apparent between responses to the neutral and high-status targets, with participants . . . increasing fundamental frequency.
That means that when people talked to those they considered more powerful or prestigious than themselves, their voices got higher and squeakier. [Note: the study itself does not refer explicitly to the squeakiness quotient.]
C.S. Lewis was a gifted orator, who could well have served as the prestigious participant in a study such as this. “Lewis had a rich, deep, booming voice,” notes a recent volume.
This may be one reason that Adolf Hitler rued Lewis’ contribution to the Allied war effort.
There are a bevy of studies related to how all manner of things exert a subconscious effect on our vocal pitch. For example, you may not be aware that “Japanese women modify their pitch when reading English sentences, producing speech in a slightly lower pitch range” (Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology).
Another fact of which you may be unaware, is that on the Supreme Court of the United States, “when male justices respond to female justices, they are more likely to raise their pitch.” What’s more, as the years pass, “female justices lower their voice pitch over time, whereas male justices raise their voice pitch over time.” What do we make of that?
In an article about how “study after study has suggested that low voices, ‘masculine’ voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles, in politics and beyond,” we discover how this relates to women, as well.
We perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive and physically stronger–and also more competent and more trustworthy—than their less burly-voiced peers. And we perceive women with lower-pitched voices along the same lines (though we also tend to perceive them, tellingly, as less attractive than their Betty Boop-y counterparts).
C.S. Lewis and the Idea of Voice
Accustomed as he was to an academic world constructed on the scaffolding of lecture and debate, Lewis was well acquainted with the power of “voice.” In fact, in one of his most creative essays, “Two Lectures,” Lewis describes hearing a predictable lecture on the subject of “evolution, development, the slow struggle upwards and onwards from crude and inchoate beginnings towards ever-increasing perfection . . .”
He then describes a “dream” that very night in which all of the lecturers presuppositions are reversed, raising the question of whether it might be “equally reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?”
The portion of the essay which is pertinent to the subject of the current column is the way he introduces the Dream Lecturer, but praising the “voice and figure” of its human precursor.
None of this [i.e. the evolution lecture], of course, was new to me or to anyone else in the audience. But it was put very well (much better than it appears in my reproduction) and the whole voice and figure of the lecturer were impressive. At least they must have impressed me, for otherwise I cannot account for the curious dream I had that night.
In “The Decline of Religion,” Lewis praises open and uninhibited conversations about faith. In contrast, he describes an earlier age of superficial religiosity in which Christianity, “if it had to be spoken of, it was spoken of in a hushed, medical voice.” Ah, the medical voice. We who have been around hospitals and sickbeds (for those seriously ill) are quite familiar with that somber and muted tone.
In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis illustrates the distinction between studying something and peering more deeply into it. His description of the voice of one’s beloved is quite poetic.
A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes’ casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. [Italics added.]
Reading these words, I am reminded of the Song of Solomon.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (2:14)
The Voice of C.S. Lewis
Fortunately, we possess a small number of recordings of Lewis’ voice. Sadly, however, many more were lost.
During WWII, the BBC used twelve-inch metal disks coated with acetate for recordings. But because metal was in short supply, those disks were primarily reserved for field recording, so only one of Lewis’s WWII talks was preserved.
If a sufficient number of recordings had survived, an analysis of Lewis’ voice pitch might have earned a modern graduate their PhD.
It is fitting to close these thoughts with a thoroughly Lewisian quotation. Lewis was a deeply charitable man. In his writings he mentions a number of times how he strove to put the best face on the words and actions of others.
In a letter to one of his regular correspondents who is extremely “distraught” at another’s behavior, he urges patience. In doing so he mentions how we can become so prejudiced toward others that their very voice becomes a bludgeon. But read on and see how he makes his gracious point.
It is a pity he ‘gets on your nerves’ but you are, rightly, controlling your reactions. I know well how a person’s very voice, looks, and mannerisms may grate on one! I always try to remember that mine probably do the same to him—and of course I never hear or see myself.