One of the few problems I have with my girlfriend is the way she sometimes talks, which is like a teenage girl you’d hear on the bus, or a reality TV star. She’s down about how her career is going, and I can’t help thinking the bored-sounding Valley Girl talk is holding her back. Do young women who talk like that realize how they sound to women over 35, or to almost all men? And, most importantly, can I gently and safely suggest to my girlfriend that she may want to speak more seriously? —Henry
Your girlfriend is doing “vocal fry,” the name of that creaky, raspy affectation that has been in use forever but was most recently identified as a super-common girl thing by researchers at Long Island University who studied female college students. Their findings were published last year in the Journal of Voice, and got a lot of coverage from a society that is persistently deeeeeeeeeesperate (that’s me frying, which is how I talk sometimes, too) to diminish and wilfully misunderstand basically everything about young women that appears trivial or unintelligent to non–young women (which is almost everything).
Check out the 1983 Nicolas Cage vehicle/early-punk document Valley Girl for a précis on both the many ways of Valspeak (“It’s, like, you know”) and of vocal “frrrry.” You will also want to watch the deleted scene from This Is 40 where Cutie McMuffin Maude Apatow does a gold-star impression of the sisters Kardashian and their notoriously deep fries.
Speech necessarily shifts with time and circumstance, and there are legitimate reasons for young women to speak this way. A co-author of the Long Island University study, Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, told The New York Times that vocal fry is both a “tool” and a “cue” for young women. Don’t forget that your girlfriend is subject to infinite social and emotional rules of communication with women, men, friends, colleagues, and strangers. Vocal fry signifies who she is in the world, and how she chooses to influence it; obnoxious or not, it does not signify stupidity or shallowness on its own. Think again of the Kardashians: In addition to frying, their incessant and annoying baby talk probably has an especially horrible sound frequency for men, but it’s obvious that when one of them needs to temporarily dim her own power and presence, she’ll savvily use that voice, almost unconsciously. See also Paris Hilton, who, in real life, has a deep, business-like tone but only ever used her Chihuahua-kissy-kissy-who-me? voice on TV. These women are not actually dumb.
Anyway, you said that your girlfriend talks like that “sometimes,” which probably means she talks like that around you, when she’s comfortable and being social; it’s likely that she shifts into another way of speaking at work. The vocal fry as a Thing That Bugs You is another issue, and you should think carefully about whether or not it’s even significant enough to mention. (Guh, it’s not. Is she kind? Does she love you? Then shut up.) A way of speaking is not like some bad domestic habit; it’s too fundamental, too much a part of her “being” or even persona to make an issue of without embarrassing her and making her self-conscious around you. Like, if you call her out on this, what’s she going to say? “Sorrrrrrrrry”? Edit herself forever? No.
Instead, consider reverse engineering the situation: make note of and compliment her on her “sexy voice” when she isn’t vocal frying, or when she’s talking especially serious-like. Point out instances of fry on TV or when your friends do it; you don’t even need to be critical, just mention it. Or, try to talk to her slow and smooth. So-called neuro-linguistic programming might be junk science, and you can’t hypnotize your girl by talking to her, but people do tend to take on each other’s speech. That’s how my brother’s goofy surfer intonations and expressions have made their way, through me, to my slickest girlfriends. Your girlfriend is not likely to change, though: This is just how we talk, and in terms of vocal trends and habits, even the experts say friers are way ahead of the currrrrrrrve.
My good friend, who is male, is hot, funny, smart, and talented with a good job. I think I am the same, but female. We’re together pretty much every day, but he will not make a move and neither will I. I want to, but I’m shy. What should I do? —Krista
Get drunk and make out!
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