A rasp, also known as creaky voice, also known as vocal fry, has become widespread. It didn’t use to be, which suggests that in most cases it isn’t caused by vocal cord affliction. Instead, it’s become fashionable. Unfortunately, it’s also been made into a feminist, which is to say political, issue.
Voice is very personal to us. If someone comments on it, we can get defensive. When the comment is about rasp and directed to a woman, some argue it is an attack on all women because, it is claimed, the same criticism isn’t directed to men who speak with similar qualities.
Actually, I find rasp as annoying in men as I do in women. There’s a Bloomberg Radio host, Cory Johnson, whose show I can’t listen to because of his rasp. The first time I was bothered by rasp was when President Bill Clinton developed the mannerism. I think it began as vocal cord exhaustion, but it turned into a habit. It seems to me that he set the example for generations after him, for both women and men. None of my friends agrees with me, but I have found support online. That said, I hear it more in women’s voices than in men’s.
Rasp may have been so long practiced by the speaker that they no longer hear it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t start out as affectation, let alone that it can’t be corrected. However, it does mean the speaker can take offense when it’s pointed out to them.
On this last point, taking offense at having things pointed out, I’m Exhibit A. I was born with a cleft palate that was repaired in an operation I had when I was too young to remember, and today even speech therapists who meet me socially can’t tell. However, it left me with lingering speech defects. From the speech therapy I had between the ages of seven and nine, I remember resenting the way my therapist kept correcting me. “People understand me,” I told her, to which she replied, “the people who know you do, but people who don’t have difficulty.” She forced me to learn to say such consonants as “s” and “th” recognizably and out of habit.
I didn’t realize I was bad at projecting my voice until many years later. As college graduation approached, I was elected commencement speaker. My friend, Dana, was a theater man, and he undertook to help me rehearse my speech. I say “help,” but it was more like “push.” He kept calling me “Mumbles,” which I naturally didn’t take kindly. However, his message got through, and my delivery was better for it.
The profession I chose led me to the courtroom, and this time I myself recognized my speech shortcomings. I hired a speech therapist. Once again I had to re-learn to say certain consonants, such as “r” and “n,” and once again I got frustrated that my tongue wouldn’t readily cooperate with my teacher’s directions. She also taught me where to locate my voice in my diaphragm so that I could project naturally, without yelling. Today I still have problems making myself understood, but it’s usually when I’m tired or distracted. When I need to, I can put my years of training into effect and make an intelligible public speech or hold a conversation.
Speech therapy wasn’t all about making myself understood. It was also about making it easy for people to listen to me. I could certainly make myself heard by yelling, but it wouldn’t go over well.
Then there’s accent. As I learned soon after I arrived in America from England, I had to make adjustments to my accent for people to hear what I said. This is hardly to say that accents are bad; just that they can be difficult to understand. In America, I love the local accents in Maine, Boston, parts of Brooklyn, western North Carolina, Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere. Some show strong character, others seduce you with their loveliness.
Accent can reflect class. This phenomenon is well-known about Britain, but it’s also true in America, though not as widely acknowledged. Formerly, upper-class accents were deemed superior—genteel, cultivated. Today, a working class accent is seen as showing character and having charm. Still, when a working class accent meets a cultivated accent suggesting education, some psychological adjustment takes place on both sides.
A final voice quality to mention is a pleasing timber. Given a choice between listening to a BMW and a garbage truck, most of us would choose the BMW. So it is with voices.
Inside the echo chamber that is our own skull, we don’t hear our own voices the way they sound to everyone else. Children don’t even realize they speak differently from adults, even though the difference is obvious to adults. The way our voices are hidden from us helps explain why we don’t see how a few tweaks might benefit us. Contrast how people look in a mirror and know to comb their hair a certain way, to put on makeup appropriate to day and mood, the color combinations to wear. This difference between how we experience voice and visual appearance may also explain why so many of us are super sensitive to criticism of our voices. We hate to be told something we can’t observe in ourselves.
Some people speak with a rasp for reasons beyond their control, such as after illness. Barney Frank rasps, but it sounds to me like a physical condition rather than one he chose. In his case, I’ve come to enjoy it as part of his gruff personality. Think of how the entire world has adapted to Stephen Hawking’s voice box. Also, rasp is entirely separate from the adjustments many women must make to be heard in large spaces. By contrast, rasp is not a necessary adaptation.
Why would someone choose to speak with a rasp? I believe it is meant to convey sophistication, a thoughtful cast of mind and allegiance to a certain movement or group of people. In that light, rasp begins as an attempt to shape one’s personality and sends a signal to people with whom the rasper feels a kinship. But just as it is an implicit plea for membership, it might well alienate others who don’t seek to join that club.
True, there’s no need to play up to people who aren’t part of your world. But raspers should understand that the response to people who find it irritating isn’t, “Get over it.” To speak with a rasp is the rasper’s privilege, but it will annoy some listeners.
In childhood, my parents and teachers foresaw that speech shortcomings would restrict my prospects. By the time I became a lawyer, my ability to convince strangers through communication was essential not only for my career, but also for the well-being of my clients. Beyond that, I love conversation and wanted to be sure I made myself understood.
The natural voice, unimpeded by grating noises, is a thing of beauty. It naturally communicates so much by itself, from empathy to a past of intriguing experience. At the same time, a pleasing speaking voice is akin to someone singing in its appeal to the senses. It pulls us in, making us want to hear more of the words if only to hear more of the voice. Why, then, compromise it?