The Verbal Tic Of Doom: Why The "Vocal Fry" Is Killing Your Job Search

If you've fallen into the annoying and off-putting vocal fry habit, unlearn it if you ever want to get hired or promoted. Or should we say, "unlearrrrrn it if you everrrr want to get hirrrrred or promoted?"

There is no doubt that the Internet has changed the way people find and land jobs. And yet, a piece of technology more than 100 years old could keep you from getting hired.

These days, candidates and employers can use mega job boards and social networks to find each other. Applicants can email unlimited resumes, and organizations use software to screen them for keywords. Both sides use search engines to collect information about the other. Still, in spite of the Internet revolution, some things remain the same: For most of us, getting a job requires talking in person to a real human being. More often than not, that means an old-school preliminary telephone interview.

I doubt anyone has won a job solely based on their phone interview. But you can lose a job that way, and I saw it happen. We were interviewing for a position that involved a high degree of interaction with senior executive clients, so we were looking for someone with the skills and experience to operate at that level. In the leadership business, you get about 10 seconds to establish your credibility. We needed someone who had what it took.

We started by winnowing down a stack of resumes into a smaller, solid candidate pool. Then we set up a first round of telephone interviews to be conducted by a couple of our staff members. They reduced the pile further, and that’s where I got involved. I took that stack and did my own interviews by phone with the idea of reducing the number of candidates to three finalists. One of the staffers on the preliminary interviews handed me the shortened stack and told me that he had arranged the candidates in rank order based on their qualifications. He did a nice job because the resume on top of the pile looked like a perfect match of background and experience.

But when I spoke with the candidate, I ruled her out immediately. Why? Because of how she talked on the phone. Every sentence ended in a gravelly low vibrato. It was a grating, kazoo-like effect that made the candidate sound immature, unconfident, and, frankly, annoying. There was no way we could risk having her represent us with a senior executive audience in spite of her considerable track record and credentials. It turns out there’s a name for the way she spoke—it’s called glottilization or vocal fry, a voice trend among both genders and particularly prominent with young women. A recently published article in the Journal of Voice reports that two-thirds of the female college students studied used vocal fry. Some suggest we can thank pop culture influences like Britney Spears, Ke$ha, and the Kardashians for popularizing this way of talking. If you still have no idea what this sounds like, someone calling herself AbbieNormalOne does a great demo here.

This isn’t a new trend. I have heard it among school-age girls for years. (Maybe I just haven’t, like, been paying attention since my house is occupied by three, like, teenage boys and I have, like, my own speech pattern issues to deal with.) It’s just the first time I have seen it cost someone a job.

Most linguists agree that vocal fry is a learned behavior. If you can make it all the way through this morning show interview with Kim Kardashian, you see the interviewer actually starts out speaking normally but by the end of the interview she is frying like a short order cook. (Spoiler alert—Kim’s favorite holiday is Christmas!)

One of the authors of the Journal of Voice article, speech scientist Nassima Abdelli-Beruh of Long Island University, says in a Science Magazine interview that, "Young students tend to use it when they get together…Maybe this is a social link between members of a group."

In other words, it is a behavior we learn in order to be like other people. Here’s some advice if you’re an up-and-coming professional and even an established one who has fallen into this habit: Unlearn it. Your 10 seconds are up—and you didn’t get the job.

Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Louish Pixel]

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15 Comments

  • Kennethgray64

    Interesting that you can be so open and bold about being so petty. Maybe the perceived problem was real and you haven't done a good job conveying it, but if the candid had a good track record, shouldn't that have suggested that the vocal fry issue was not an issue at all? Sounds like you stereotyped the hell out of her and whatever executives/clients you thought she'd have to interact with.

  • invention13

    Its not petty at all. One gauge of how other people would react to something is how you react yourself. If something someone does annoys the hell out me, I wouldn't hire them for a job where they have to interact with important business clients. I'm just honest enough to admit it. I'm sure you would go ahead and hire someone with traits you found annoying in the interest of "fairness".

  • Michele0515

    Get over yourself...what qualifies you as judge and jury?  Most industrial psychologists and pop culture business guru's suffer from their own flavor of personality disorder, an obsession with self and some grandiose idea that their 'expertise' is the end all be all in terms of being able to determine or 'read' a potential applicant.  Do a little research, most major corporations have psychopaths at the top of the food chain.  How about taking a moment to 'listen' instead of making an assessment based on the 'musings' of someone who without a GPS more than likely could not locate his rectum?  The tone of this article is pure snark and I reject the shallowness and lack of depth.  Good for you your ego is served because you have the 'power' to decide someone's fate based on the fact they don't give good phone. It's a sad world when human resource professionals feel somehow they are competent when they allegedly are seeking professionals then hold them to a standard that perhaps is best suited for a telemarketer.  I'm happy the candidate was rejected...I certainly wouldn't want to work for your company.

  • Canditoterry

    Nobody likes a GRATING voice.  Highly annoying.  Chalk on a blackboard!

  • Amz

    So this article is really only how YOU didn't hire someone who was perfectly qualified for the job because YOU didn't like their Valley Girl Voice and then you apparently are trying to justify that via this article....

  • mandysroyalty

    P.S. This crap was Britney Spears' fault. That nasty little munchkin burst on to the scene with scratch voice in the early 00's. Down with her! :/

  • chelita1228

    It's too bad that that you judged this woman solely based on her voice and also chose to stick that picture as if the perpetrators of vocal fry were bubble gum blonde girls. Of my friends, the 2 biggest vocal fry perpetrators, are males and incredibly smart -  my company CTO and a current Harvard PHD. 

  • Whoelsebutme

    There are at least two women in my circle of friends and acquaintances that do this.  I had no idea that a name exists for it.  I do know that it is extremely obnoxious and does make one sound pretentious.  I've also observed that these women turn it on when they want to sound like they're "in the know".  Please, stop it.  I also would rule out a potential hire for this verbal tic. 

  • Mike

    Most people who talk with a "vocal fry" are not doing so because it is natural. It is definitely learned, as I hear it only in groups of young women (teens to 30s). I agree...it is absolutely annoying and pretentious. If I hear a young woman speaking in this way, I think that she has something to prove and cares more about what people within her own social circles think than about being a unique individual.

  • noname63

    It makes a person sound less intelligent. Maybe potential empolyers should let candidates know why they were rejected (if they ask), because this is something that can be fixed, probably with the help of a speech therapist.

  • Dani

    I'm honestly a little shocked that someone would judge a person based on the quality of their voice, completely disregarding whether or not that person has perhaps suffered damage to their vocal chords at some point in their life, or might have some other issue affecting their airflow while speaking. Sometimes the only remedy is to slow down the rate of speech and make sure to inhale as much as possible while pausing between words, but sometimes it isn't as easy without someone wondering if you have just jogged up flights of stairs before engaging in conversation with them. 

    Coming from a background of two very successful business owners, and a media exposure consisting of mostly educational programs (most often narrated by Sir David Attenborough), I can honestly say that the "vocal fry" in my voice actually comes from legitimate vocal cord trauma. 

    Do try to keep an open mind and realize that just because someone appears to be following a trend doesn't make them a part of it. I honestly never would have thought that what has been an annoyance to me for well over a decade has become "fashionable". 

    Cheers

  • Logan J Vickery

    What a dazzling conversationalist.  Now I know what to I want for xmas!