We need to talk about voice privilege

Written by: Janan Ganesh
Published on: 4 Apr 2023

Boris Johnson
The timbre and pitch of Boris Johnson’s voice offer him ‘a monstrous advantage’ © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Hasta la vista, baby”, said Boris Johnson as his time as UK premier wound down. The line was just about serviceable in Terminator 2. But this was a man pushing 60, proud of his Homeric learning, on a stage that was set for a career-crowning mot juste.

Johnson isn’t funny. He once referred to an opponent as “Captain crash-a-rooney snoozefest.” That isn’t funny. It is the humour of the zany tie and the office prank. Nor is he original when being serious. If the Shakespeare book comes out, don’t expect an exegesis of the plays that hadn’t occurred to Coleridge or Harold Bloom.

But then fortunes aren’t paid in speaking fees to the dull. Betrayals aren’t forgiven in the un-magnetic. Plodders don’t win referendums. The burden is on those who talk Johnson down to account for his star power. 

Here is part of the answer. His voice is beautiful. I don’t mean his accent. I don’t mean his choice of words or his arrangement of them: what is called “eloquence”. I mean his voice. Deep and textured, raspy without crossing into sibilance, I can see (or hear) why people want to be around it. And why those cursed with a squeak or a murmur go through life hamstrung.

‘Shrill’ is such a wounding word to use against someone because it conflates a trebly voice with extremism of thought and brittleness of character

Over the past decade or so, we have become more conscious of forms of privilege beyond the material. Beauty is one. Such are the social and economic returns to prettiness that some even suggest offsetting them through fiscal redistribution. (As if I’m not taxed enough.) Strange, then, that more isn’t made of voice privilege. In almost any domain — corporate, electoral, romantic — those with good timbre and pitch are at a monstrous advantage. In meetings, I see perceptive mumblers lose out to sonorous mediocrities. And, as with beauty, there is only so much they can do to enhance their vocal lot in life. 

Johnson isn’t even the foremost case of voice privilege. Stephen Fry: a trader in quotations and allusions, not thoughts. But I could listen to him all day. Barack Obama: wouldn’t those messianic banalities, that coffee-mug wisdom, be recognised as such if he spoke with a squeak? Arsène Wenger: great in his time, but that time ended around 2008. His survival for another decade had a lot to do with an air of authority that was almost ex cathedra. This in turn had a lot to do with being baritone in three languages.

At the same time, there are victims of unconscious voice bias. Jamie Carragher is the most forensic football pundit in mainstream broadcasting. I doubt he will ever be seen as such. Keir Starmer has slayed the hard left and turned a 20-point poll deficit into a 20-point lead for the Labour party. And still a perception of weakness clings to him. It is that sound of strangulation he can’t help making. 

As for the US, Ron DeSantis is said to be White House-bound. That assumes a national audience willing to hear him day-in, day-out, as part of their lives. Now go online and watch his second inaugural address as Florida governor. Imagine him against Donald Trump in a primary debate. I wonder. Yes, Abraham Lincoln had a high voice, but he predated the radio and even the phonograph. Most Americans never heard him speak.

And none of this reckons with the question of gender. How much of the historic male advantage in the workplace comes down to the vocal factor. “Shrill” is such a wounding word to use against someone because it conflates a trebly voice with extremism of thought and brittleness of character.

I write as a citizen of the most voice-privileged nation. A lot of clout — intellectual, even sexual — is said to accrue to the British accent. This isn’t quite right. Who has “the” British accent? Harry Styles? Emma Thompson? Daniel Kaluuya? Because I have known people melt at the sound of each of these celebrities.

No, what people like, when they like it at all, is the British voice. It is closer to bass than treble than some others in the Anglophone world. It tends to modulate in such a way as to prevent the high rising terminal. It avoids, in the main, vocal fry. From such mechanics, a veneer of intelligence and sophistication is conjured. Thus did we get the world to pay for Richard Curtis films. A brilliant ruse, the voice, but no less cruel for that.


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