Researchers have shown that the way some gay men speak can identify us as gay to listeners, and the clues appear to be in the way we say our vowels.
It is not uncommon for us to draw knee-jerk conclusions about people based on how they speak.
And, despite the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover, those snap judgments aren’t always inaccurate – even when based on less than a single word, according to a new study to be presented at this month’s Acoustical Society of America meeting in Seattle.
“This is a phenomenon that occurs every day,” says study leader Erik C. Tracy, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University.
“We are constantly speaking with people we don’t know on our phones, and just from this conversation, we might be able to identify personal characteristics about that person, such as their gender, age, race, or sexual orientation.”
But what exactly, Tracy wondered, are we hearing in that speech that lets us make these decisions?
He decided to focus on sexual orientation, which – previous studies had shown – can be correctly ascertained by listeners hearing only one monosyllabic word.
In a series of experiments, Tracy and colleague Nicholas P. Satariano had seven gay and seven heterosexual males record a list of monosyllabic words, such as “mass,” “food,” and “sell”.
It’s in the vowels…
Listeners were then asked to identify the sexual orientation of the speakers when played those entire words, the first two letter sounds (say, “ma”), or just the first letter sound (“m”).
Although they couldn’t accurately guess the sexual orientation of the speaker with just the first letter sound, “when presented with the first two letter sounds, listeners were 75 percent accurate,” says Tracy.
“We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision,” he says.
So while listeners are not very good at making a determination when they hear just the first consonant of a word (the “m”), when they hear the first consonant and the subsequent vowel (“ma”), “their accuracy levels increase dramatically,” he says.
“I’m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel,” Tracy adds.
“Other researchers have done various acoustic analyses to understand why gay and heterosexual men produce vowels differently. Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision.”
The study brings up a number of interesting questions that have yet to be answered – and asks us to consider the stereotypes we all face. For example: Is this applicable to all gay men or does it apply to mainly “out” men? Or perhaps primarily flamboyant gay men? Do closeted gays speak differently?
Many of us know gay men who don’t seem to have any ‘obvious’ gay mannerisms or speech, but it’s not clear if Tracy and his colleague specifically chose gay men who “sounded gay”.
It would also be intriguing to look at why gay men might speak differently – is there some kind of biological basis for this or do we do it to fit in with our particular sub-culture? Some have suggested that this could be a way of gay men identifying one another – a kind of ‘mating’ signal, as it were.
Previous research has looked at the ‘gay lisp’ often identified with gay men from English speaking countries. The latest study was also undertaken in the US, so it’s not clear if a ‘gay sound or speech’ is a universal phenomenon across the world.
Interestingly, research appears to show that lesbian women do not speak in such a way that they can be identified as gay in the same way that some gay men may be.
Either way, it appears that there’s still much to be learnt about being gay – and science is diligently working on it.
Do you think that you ‘sound gay’? Have you noticed that other gay men do? What do you think about this new study? Tell us below.