It's not what you say, but how you say it.
In a test to see if people could recognize emotions by the sound of someone's voice, University of Colorado psychiatrists employed an actress to repeat a neutral sentence, "The green book is lying on the table," with various emotions.
Sadness, they found, was the most universally recognized emotion, followed by anger, joy and fear.
"The nonverbal cues for this emotion [sadness] seem to be basic: slow tempo and little pitch variation that yield an impression of an energyless or passive speech style," Dr. William F. Johnson and his colleagues write in the current Archives of General Psychiatry.
More important, the psychiatrists write, these nonverbal clues may tell more about how a psychiatric patient feels than the words the patient uses.
"Our studies have demonstrated that the voice is indeed a powerful source of information about emotion and that it is a source that is difficult to 'disguise,' " they conclude. Psychiatrists should try to sense how a patient feels by listening to the voice, "especially . . . when our intuition is apparently at odds with the words of the patient."
Most of the emotions were recognized even when the tapes were played in reverse to make the words incomprehensible.