The psychology behind the voice can also extend into the accent or the way we speak. As I work with my European students we discuss why it is often so hard for them to put on an American accent. It is not because the student does not know the different sound changes in the accent, but it does have to do with her attitude to Americans in general. Coming from Europe she views Americans as silly, loud and immature. These are her judgments and as a result these judgments block her from taking on the American accent as the accent represents taking on the ‘negative’ qualities that she so dislikes.
As we explore this idea more deeply we will start with clichés. And I hope I do not offend as I say these things, but here they are. Americans in general, from the perspective of a European, are loud and brash. When they speak, to a European, it feels as though they are speaking ‘in your face.’ To Americans, often the average educated European can seem sarcastic, cold and judgmental. So what is going on here?
First, it is important to understand that the American is not being rude. Nor, from an American perspective are they being loud or brash. Generally Americans come from a smaller social bubble. What you see is what you get. They speak as they feel: in the moment. It is socially acceptable in America to be loud and a ‘go getter’.
To the European, American thinking is more black and white: American thinking represents optimism, positivity and also puritanism, sometimes combined with downright shocking violence. This is reflected in a history of the Hollywood movie industry: the Cowboys and Indians from the West. The question always lurking in a good cowboy movie is:- ‘What is wrong and how do we put it right?’ John Wayne in that great movie ‘The Searchers’ is not interested in how the young girl is raped, or the story or motives behind it. He just needs to know who is responsible. And once he knows who that man is, that man is a dead man. No subtlety, no great thinking…just action in the moment.
The cliche' about Europeans is that they will analyze and pontificate way before they take action: Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ is a classic example here. A man who needs all the evidence he can gather, and still three hours into the drama he has yet to make a decision even though he has thought carefully through every action with monologues that go on for pages. An American Hamlet would have hunted down his father’s murderer, pulled out the gun and shot him. End of play!
How is this mentality reflected in the way we speak? I have observed that Americans generally talk a lot faster than the average European. It is as though through their talking they discover their thought…which is why if you listen to many American monologues they meander around, add a few ‘kinda' and ‘you know’ and ‘likes’ until they discover, in their speaking, their thought. And at that point many have run out of breath and the end of the sentence slips away leaving a European listener feeling cheated and denied of something — but unable to ascertain exactly what it is. The average American is friendly and open. Extremely in the moment, able to shed a tear or release an angry gesture at the drop of a hat. But also, because he or she often clarify their subject as they are speaking about it, they can talk their way around it until they finally arrive at the point in the center of it all, the point they want to make.
In other words whether Americans communicate by getting more directly to the point or find their idea through speaking/thinking aloud, generally it can appear as if they discover their idea as they are speaking.
Europeans on the other hand tend to have the idea formulated in the mind, which leads to the speech. The thought informs the speech. Generally, before they speak they know what they are going to communicate. It is in the past. The thought has occurred and all they have to do is to deliver the information. This is particularly true of Germans. If, as I suggested earlier, that we think in terms of clichés, Germans come across as extremely direct and concise and a lot of this has to do with the fact that generally the verb in a German sentence has to go at the end of the sentence to be grammatically correct. This means as they speak they have to know what they are communicating clearly. It also demands careful listening from the other person as they wait to hear the verb, often the last word spoken, to understand clearly what is being communicated. No wonder Germans are attentive and concise!!!!
As I touch on the subject of listening I also find that many young Americans are not good at listening, and I wonder if this isn't because they are often "finding their subject" as they speak, and once done speaking and now more fully aware of what they had to say, they start to think about it more. In other words they analyze what they have been saying after the moment…not before like most Europeans. In the meantime, the person opposite them is responding, but they frequently fail to hear as they are too busy reflecting on what they have just communicated.
American conversational subjects tend to be different from Europeans. They generally are happier talking about themselves, whereas Europeans are more wont to engage in religious or political discussions. Again, I have to keep adding that I am not talking about all Americans - these are cliche's - but if you could listen to the general conversations of Americans verses Europeans you would notice a discrepancy in subject material. Neither is better or worse. My point, however, is that the voice student who is judgmental of any of this creates a barrier between him or herself and the accent or voice to be adopted. I address this more in my later books.
American’s are present when they communicate. The words pour out. Much of what they say is not filtered. The European will think first:- ‘How can I say this without offending? ‘Should I say this?’ ‘How can I express this point without sounding nasty?’ Etc. By the time the words come out of a Europeans mouth the phrase is sculptured and well thought out. To the American this may seem intellectual or cold, maybe even arrogant it can be so precise. And so once more the judgments preside and may block the American attempting to adopt a European accent.
As I work with young American and British actors I have observed how Americans generally approach an acting piece with the emotion right there in the moment fully present. The European actor will speak well but lack emotional presence. Again, this is reflective of the way the mind is working. The American actor will be in the present and as they talk the thought, emotion and ideas emerge. They can sound surprised sometimes in their vocal patterning as the thoughts come to them through the words as the emotion hits. The Europeans come from an oral tradition. They tell the story. The thought comes first followed by the careful sculpting of words and phrasing. The emotion is somewhat blocked as they focus from the past on the careful communication of the story. A European actor will add the emotional elements to the scene only as the last detail while their speaking, phrasing and language is carefully constructed. Americans jump right in and often sacrifice the art of the speaker with instant feelings in the moment. Interestingly, if you look at the Historical American Characters you see this less — the European influence was once more prevalent. How interesting that in only two hundred years we can observe how American thinking has shifted from a more concise, thoughtful language-orientated speech to the more present here and now individual oriented speak of the 21 century.
For Europeans you can substitute Asians or other older cultures like Iran. These cultures have a whole cultural system of do’s and don’ts. If you are Asian, somewhere in your not too distant past it was considered offensive to even show your teeth. And similarly in Iran women have experienced much sexual oppression. As a result the modern Iranian girl here in America can be quite abusive to her voice as she strives to overcome the oppressive past from which she has escaped physically. So many of my Iranian clients have a raucous voice that is tired and pushed as they ‘force’ their presence onto the world as independent women. And I use the word ‘force’ here specifically. To any Iranian reading this chapter you may want to use the verb ‘assert’ rather than ‘force’ — which from an Iranian perspective that’s what these women are doing: asserting themselves (and good for them). But as this battle to assert themselves is also against the ghosts of their past that are still lurking in their unconsciousness, against an upbringing that culturally and historically has wanted to hold them down and restrict their freedom. As a result they often overcompensate vocally: the voice is forced forward and these women can sometimes do damage to the vocal cords and produce a tired raspy sounding voice.
Similarly Asian women who are brought up traditionally to speak quietly and not assert themselves are now exposed to the ways of the West and are finding that they want to work on and strengthen their voices to be more present like their American sisters. Yet they cannot. Why? Because deep down in their psyche there is still the judgment that American women are overbearing and loud compared to the more gentle ways of the East.
In writing these thoughts and observations I am extremely conscious that I am probably offending all or some my readers. Please appreciate these are general observations, based on years of work with students from different cultures. While broadly accurate, every student is different and unique. But if you are wanting to settle your voice in any given direction…whether it be to reflect who you are, or to take on more of the qualities/accents of a particular culture, you ought to become aware of your judgements about that culture, and about its presiding vocal patterns. If the voice or culture upsets you the chances are you will encounter resistance to embracing its sound. The working class person who refuses to articulate consonants clearly publishes to society that he is working class and proud of it. The Brit may refuse to sound American because it means sounding ‘silly or ignorant.’ The women who is afraid to drop the voice into its natural register because that little girl voice goes so well with the image of the girl "needing help" and is a great voice for getting attention from men.
These are all clichés but reflect some of the judgments we hold that in turn restrict the voice, and have, in fact, been issues I have encountered with my students.
For a moment consider what your voice communicates about you. What does your voice communicate about your sexuality, your culture, your social and educational status? What does your vocal badge look like and do you like it? If you do then you will not need to read further, but if you are aware that your current vocal badge is not really working for you then look at the judgments you are holding about your voice - in what way has it come to serve you? - and judgements about a vocal sound you would like to have, or adopt.
Therein lie the clues to moving beyond the voice you currently use and the keys that will enable you to ‘own’ and free the voice that will support you more in the long run.
Have fun with exploring the judgments. They are nothing to be ashamed of. Often the greater affinity you have with the history and culture of your country the more restrictive issues you may have blocking the freedom of your voice. As you address the issues honestly you will begin to release the locks on the voice.