Within the first 10 minutes of watching Netflix’s new fast-track dating show, Love is Blind, one of the contestants had started talking in a ‘sexy baby voice’ to not one, but two potential suitors.
Jessica Batten, a contestant on the show that sees 29 American men and women fall in love and get engaged without a glimpse at the other’s physical appearance, has been questioned on Twitter in a now-viral Tweet that shows how her voice changes pitch when she’s speaking to a love interest.
It’s a jarring contrast; when Jessica is speaking direct to camera or chatting to the other female contestants her tone is measured, if not slightly drawled, but when she is speaking to Mark Cuevas or Matt Barnett (two prongs of her love triangle, the latter who called her faux voice ‘sexy’), the pitch changes completely, decibels are considerably elevated and the drawl more pronounced.
‘Sexy baby voice’ is not a new phenomenon (or a new term) and shouldn’t be confused with the voice many switch to when speaking to babies. Into the Gloss defines SBV as ‘a mix of high pitch, vocal fry, and up-talk’, compared to the softer tones we naturally take when speaking to newborns. It’s likely you’ve seen both first-hand – I’ve known friends whose voices have transitioned into a squeak upon speaking to someone they found attractive.
Victoria Browne, Mindset and Confidence Coach at Step into your Light, says: “When [the baby voice] is being done to a baby, the maternal side of a woman is trying to make a connection. In the Twitter clip it is likely that Jessica is trying to consciously or subconsciously come across as vulnerable, and like she needs taking care of by the man.”
Psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), Yuko Nippoda, agrees: “In this particular example, at first the woman wants to convey enjoyment and express her cheerful and positive self, with the voice coming from the stomach. In the second case, she presents her vulnerable self. She projects his image in her voice as she thinks (probably subconsciously) that this will make the man feel he wants to protect her. Here, the voice seems as if it comes from the throat.”
And it’s not just women speaking to love interests – I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a phone voice. When my boyfriend first met my brother I noticed his voice drop considerably lower, his laughs becoming deeper as if to form a masculine comradery, and it was only last year that fallen Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was accused of faking her deep baritone voice.
Professor Sarah Niblock, CEO of UKCP, says: “(The French psychoanalyst) Lacan said we use our voices to frame others’ responses to us, through pace, rhythm, verbal style and so on. We may use our voices in such a way as to invite attention and a response or, alternatively, to repel. So much so that he described the voice as a ‘sadomasochistic object’ which we can use to control others or be controlled.”
According to a study from 2017, it’s common for people to change the pitch of their voice depending on who they’re speaking to. The study, from researchers at Scotland’s University of Stirling found that people change the pitch of their voice in accordance to how dominant they feel in the conversation. An example the study gave was that both men and women tend to speak to their boss or someone they consider ‘higher-status’ in a higher pitch than they would speak to someone they manage or a co-worker.
UKCP spokesperson and person-centred psychotherapist, Dr Divine Charura, adds: “The reason why we change the sound and pitch of our voice, depending on who we are talking to, is part evolutionary psychology and partly connected to our upbringing. Consciously we will adapt our voice to different situations, many people will adopt a warmer, softer voice with the aim to become more attractive to a partner, or we adapt our voice to fit in, to negotiate, to plead or to reprimand.
“We are also socialised through the media, through our relationships and upbringing to learn how voice can affect our ability to get what we need and want. We know from parents or teachers that a firm, loud, quick paced voice is often used to get us to take notice and stop.”
Self-esteem plays a part too. People who are more confident or rate themselves ‘high in prestige’ tended to speak to others with a lower tone or not change their voice at all.
Browne agrees: “Studies have shown our pitch changes depending on how we relate to the person we are speaking to and the emotions or feelings that we have or relate to that person. For instance we will have a different tone, pitch, or rhythm to our dialect and even a different use of the language we choose to use with someone we are attracted compared to someone we feel anxious around.”
Nippoda adds: “People who are more grounded and confident of themselves and their own abilities might not feel the need to change their voice to different people or situations. People who feel vulnerable or emotional tend to be more susceptible to changing the pitch of their voice.”
Most people are completely unaware of the pitch change, only noticing when someone else points it out but even then it’s hard to consciously change it. Teenagers, Browne says, are particularly susceptible to pitch changes between interacting with groups of peers compared to someone they are attracted to.
“We make most of these changes subconsciously but the reason behind it is about the way we want to be looked at or seen by that person,” Browne continues. “In terms of romance and attraction we will try to almost copy that person matching as closely as possible to their tone, pace and speech patterns in order to ‘connect ‘ with them and be seen as more desirable.”
And it’s not just our voices that change – Charura explains we change our facial expressions and whole psychological system as well to adapt to certain situations.
“How we sound, move and position our bodies is part of the way we communicate and express our needs,” Charura continues. “This stems from evolutionary psychology and how that informs our relationships with each other to achieve particular outcomes (positive or negative).”
While Batten’s pitch change, in particular, has been highlighted and shared on the interwebs, it’s something we’re all (consciously or subconsciously) guilty of doing. It simply makes us human.
Divine Charura and Professor Sarah Niblock talk more about the psychological and physiological response we have to love and relationships on the recent UKCP podcast – What is Love psychotherapy.org.uk
For more stories on love and dating, head to our Dating section.