Is Jeff Bezos truly as sad as he sounds? Is Meta aka Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg really that fearful when she speaks in public? And does House speaker Nancy Pelosi always sound frightened?
In a recent study conducted by Nadiia Mykhalevych and Preply, the language learning company, that seems to be the conclusion. Using Vokaturi, an AI emotion recognition tool that detects the level of emotions in the human voice, Mykhalevych and her team analyzed the public speeches of well-known business leaders, entrepreneurs, and politicians from Great Britain, the U.S., and around the world. And what they found was illuminating.
Anger, for instance, seems to be the dominant emotion expressed by business leaders (at 55%). Neutral finished a distant second, at 24%, and only 15% of business leaders spoke with any discernible amount of happiness.
Granted, these could all be a sign o’ the times. In the U.S., political leaders came off as 62% angry, while among British politicians happiness, at 37%, outscored anger, at 32%.
All of which reminded me of a client I’d had. Jim.
Jim was in his 30s when he came to me. He’d been told by his boss that his co-workers were afraid of him because he always sounded angry. This news came as a huge shock to Jim, who told me that this seemed to come out of left field and he couldn’t believe it. “I never argue with my co-workers and I always do my best to cooperate and be helpful.” Why do they think I sound angry? He’d asked me. What is it about my voice that sounds so angry to them?
If I’d had this study to show him back then, I’d have been able to tell him that he was only mimicking, in a way, the dominant emotion being shown to him by the people he’d modeled himself on: leaders, CEOs, supervisors, bosses. (And even further back—his voice developed in reaction to his family situation. More on that below.)
Anger, then, seems to be the prevailing emotion among people speaking to us—or at us. These are the people we look up to, respect, and often consciously or unconsciously feel we should model ourselves after, so it’s only natural that all this anger—unfortunately—plays out again and again.
Mykhalevych’s study, though, also confirms what I do, and what I’ve been telling my clients and others for years: your voice communicates so much more than you realize.
In 2017, researchers from the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California concluded that “we don’t only detect basic emotional tone in the voice (e.g., positive vs. negative feelings or excitement vs. calm); we are actually capable of detecting fine nuances. We can distinguish anger from fear and sadness; awe from compassion, interest, and embarrassment.”
As they summed up in the end: “The voice may be a far more reliable predictor than the face.”
Which is what people were picking up from Jim and how he spoke.
And again, it’s something that other recent studies have borne out.
In 2016, researchers from Canada’s McGill University, for one, gave a very specific figure: “It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations.” That’s how quickly people were picking up on Jim’s anger.
In 2019, Henrik Nordström of Stockholm University stated that humans use nonverbal manipulations of the voice to communicate emotions and that these manipulations can be understood quickly and accurately by listeners both within and across cultures.
Meaning that, even among Jim’s colleagues who didn’t speak English as their first language—they too sensed the anger in the way Jim spoke to them.
Jim had a strong voice, clipped the ends of his words, and spoke very directly. Indeed, he came across as a no-nonsense person. However, his speaking pattern was a result of something much deeper.
When I told him he sounded like someone who is always on guard, he said, “Wow, you hear that in my voice! Amazing!” As we talked, he told me that he had no idea why he sounded that way and that he certainly didn’t want to sound angry at work or in his personal life.
In our time together, I helped Jim work on his breath, and through his breathing, to relax more. In his particular case, I could hear that he held his breath because he was expecting to be attacked verbally. Plus, he exercised regularly and was physically strong, and had no trouble breathing deeply and easily when working out.
In time, as he got better at breathing and relaxing, he became very aware of how much he held his breath and how much easier it was to speak from a relaxed place. Relaxation gave him the space to recognize and understand that, by practicing speaking exercises, he had a choice over how he wanted to sound.
After a month of speaking with breath support, he sounded much less defensive and angry. At this point we focused on his volume—the work we’d done on his breath allowed him to hear how loudly he’d been speaking to people. So we then worked on some volume control exercises.
It was while we were working on these loudness exercises that Jim had a huge realization. He said that he sounded angry and feared being too loud because he’d had to defend himself and his sisters from his father, who had been a physically abusive alcoholic during the entire time he was growing up. He could now hear the tone of hidden anger in his voice. Anger he’d developed as a result of his childhood environment.
This “anger” tone was so much a part of him that it wasn’t until he started practicing voice exercises that he put two and two together. It was a psychological factor that then became physical—through his voice. And further proof of the power of the human voice—more power, more felt power than what’s conveyed by our faces.
As Michael Kraus had put it in a 2017 paper for Yale University’s School of Management, the research he and his colleagues had done “question the primary role of the face in communication of emotion.”
What Jim realized was that he had been using his angry voice tone to interact with the larger world. It was a huge breakthrough for Jim and it released him to discover many new ways of expressing himself verbally. Changing the hidden message in his voice changed Jim’s life and gave him the speaking skills and confidence to be an outstanding speaker and communicator.
Of course, not everyone’s voice evolves out of childhood trauma. But it does make me wonder about Jeff Bezos: if he comes off that sad that often, what sort of Rosebud-like childhood might he be carrying around?