In most human societies those with a higher social status enjoy privileges beyond the reach of others. Such status can be obtained through dominance, using intimidation or force, or acquiring prestige by demonstrating knowledge and skill. To make best use of the benefits though, other people need to know that you are top dog.
On the other hand, if you’re of a lower status, there are probably times when it pays to avoid challenging those higher up the pecking order. In which case, you might want to convey your recognition of their authority.
Using body language, such as by taking up more space (adopting “power poses”) may be one of the most obvious, visible modes of asserting ourselves. But of course speech also conveys status, not only in its content, but in the characteristics of the voice itself. Indeed, according to a new study in PLOS One we adjust the pitch of our voice depending on who we are talking to. The research group at the University of Stirling found that the direction of this unconscious vocal tuning depends on the speaker’s perception of their social status relative to the listener.
Juan David Leongómez and his colleagues recorded students as they took part in simulated interviews for a job as an admin assistant with three different male employers (the order of the interviews was varied between participants). A picture and description of each employer showed one to be highly dominant (Chief of Security at a prison, described as tough and intimidating), another highly prestigious (Head of Department at a Business School, described as well-respected and competent), and a third was neutral (from the HR department at a secondary school, described as your average boss).
Juan David Leongómez和他的同事们记录了学生们在与三个不同的男性雇主在模拟的情景中面试行政助理职位时的情况（不同参与者的访谈顺序是不同的）。 在第一个场景中，雇主被描述为有着更高的统治地位（将监狱保安队长描述为厉害和有威胁的），另一个有较高的声望（将商学院的系主任描述为德高望重的），第三位是中性的（来自于中学人力资源部的人被描述为你平时的老板的样子）。
The participants had to introduce themselves to the employer, and explain why they were suited to the job. They were also asked about how they would approach their boss if they had a disagreement with a colleague. After all the interviews, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their own and the employers’ dominance and prestige.
From the recordings, the researchers calculated the “fundamental frequency” of the participants’ voices (an objective measure of pitch) and tracked variations in their voice pitch as they spoke. A low fundamental frequency would equate to sounding calm and in control, and has been found to be perceived as more dominant in both male and female voices, although the natural sex difference in absolute pitch was accounted for.
When talking to the highly dominant and prestigious employers, both male and female students who also perceived themselves as more dominant lowered their voice pitch, whilst students who perceived themselves to be less dominant did the opposite. These changes in pitch were most noticeable when the students explained why they were the best candidate and talked about how they would resolve the conflict.
The new findings add to past research showing that lower voice pitch conveys traits related to social status, including physical strength and attractiveness.