Reader: I sit in a cubicle next to someone whose job requires her to make lengthy phone calls to vendors. She’s a capable, smart young lady whom I like. However, she regularly engages in vocal fry during her calls, and I just can’t take it anymore.
I thought I might gently mention this impediment to her, but she told me recently she went to speech therapy as a kid, for a different speech impediment. Now I’m afraid to say anything in case it hurts her self-esteem.
I am not the only one who’s noticed the vocal fry, but her supervisor does not sit close enough to hear her on these calls.
Other than donning headphones, is there anything I can do? I’m concerned this affectation will hurt her professionally, and she’s good at her job.
Karla: For anyone who’s missed the last few years’ media coverage of this phenomenon, “vocal fry” refers to an airless, guttural tone of voice, mostly associated with young women. Unlike uptalking? where every phrase? sounds like a question?, vocal fry involves lowering and flattening one’s pitch, presumably because the speaker thinks it projects confidence and authority.
If your co-worker is generally successful with vendors, perhaps her competence outshines her verbal tic. With younger clients, it may even work in her favor. But with older clients and senior colleagues, it could undermine her professional persona by making her sound immature or disaffected.
Unless she seeks your counsel, I can’t think of an appropriate way for you to tell her she sounds like a rake dragging on asphalt. But if oral communication is important to your employer’s bottom line, your HR or management team might be open to bringing in speech coaches to help everyone polish their speaking habits. Surely there are mumblers, ha-ha-habitual chucklers, and um, y’know, like, others in your office who could benefit.
A couple of readers have offered suggestions regarding my Feb. 15 column about a Chinese lab assistant whose struggles with spoken English were hindering her work. Instead of ESL, which they thought would not meet the assistant’s needs, these readers recommended cross-cultural communication training with a focus on accent modification.
This training, when led by a qualified speech therapist, addresses enunciation, usage, inflection and other cultural quirks — not to bleach away all trace of accent or heritage, but to minimize linguistic barriers and cultural misunderstandings.
The readers suggested searching the Web, and particularly LinkedIn, for training geared toward corporate or science and tech environments and offered by a reputable professional with strong references. Thanks to those readers for sharing their experience and recommendations.
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