This week I caught a cold.
I do not consider myself unique in this regard – getting sick in December is one of New York City’s longest running traditions (even older than the tree lighting in Rockefeller center and the all day binge drinking event known as “Santa Con”).
This time around my cold wasn’t particularly severe, so I considered myself lucky – save for one thing: I completely lost my voice. When I tried to speak, all that would come out was a horse whisper. As I struggled through the week, one upfront apology at a time (“I apologize in advance, but my voice is a little horse today”), I observed something quite peculiar (aside from the way I sounded) – when I had a horse voice, people treated me differently.
It probably wasn’t on purpose, and I certainly don’t think that anyone meant harm by it, but I found that in response to my weak voice, people actually cut me off more while I was speaking, talked over me in conversations and didn’t wait for me to finish my sentences. It was incredible – overnight I had become a different kind of conversationalist – I had gone from being well-heard and respected to being a passive participant. These discoveries led to me make several more observations about voice (I had plenty of time to observe while others were speaking).
Observation 1) Some voices are sharp and can cut cleanly through a conversation, while others are more blunt and cannot penetrate a lively discussion. People with voices that are sharp, (terse, like the banging of the drum or the crash of a cymbal) will frequently sheer a conversation in two to insert their point – while those whose voices are more melodic (like the hum of a cello) will wait for a natural break before presenting their thoughts.
Observation 2) Those with the loudest voices aren’t always right and aren’t always the most respected, but they are usually the first ones to guide the conversation to new topics.
As my voice returns and I return to work this week – I will take with me a new respect for the way voice influences our communication. And as my friends, coworkers, and fellow New Yorkers slowly recover from their colds, I may even speak out and encourage them to change another one of New York City’s longest running traditions: talking over other people.