The Echoes of the Mind (137-1) Paralanguage


Paralanguage (aka vocalics) is the vocal prosody of speech: how a person talks, not what is said. This involves the nonverbal elements of the voice, including tone, pitch, intonation, stress, loudness, rate, and cadence.

In the company of other men, males subconsciously adjust the pitch of their voice higher or lower depending on their assessment of where they stand in the dominance hierarchy.

Women universally agree that a lower-pitched male voice is more attractive. Men with lower voices tend to have higher levels of testosterone, the hormone associated with virility. A woman’s attraction to men with deep voices is most pronounced when she is in the fertile phase of her ovulatory cycle.

Metacommunication is secondary transmission that intimates how information is meant to be interpreted: purposeful paralanguage.

Paralanguage provides an unspoken context, including humorous, ironic, or sarcastic intent; it encompasses elements of language not encoded by grammar or vocabulary choice. Depending upon tone of voice, “yes” may indicate agreement, affirmation, reluctance, confusion, boredom, impatience, hostility, affection, seduction, intimacy, or a multitude of other meanings.

As with other nonverbal communication cues, vocalics affects spoken message interpretation one of 6 ways: reinforce, emphasize, complement, substitute, regulate, or contradict.

Nonverbal cues reinforce with redundancy. They emphasize with enthusiasm or accent with gravitas. Paralanguage complements by putting a slightly different spin on what is said.

Vocalic expressions may substitute for saying something. A yawn, laugh, “duh” or “uh-huh” carries its own meaning.

Nonverbal cues may regulate or control verbal communication. Filler pauses (e.g., “um” or audible air intake) at the end of sentences are employed by the slow-witted to preclude interjection or interruption. (Sharp, disciplined minds speak smoothly with sufficient speed to need no such crutch.) Likewise, silence or audible exhalation at the end of a sentence suggests that the monologue has concluded.

Finally, vocalics can contradict what is being said. In acquiescing to a request with evident distaste or boredom, the nonverbal message may trump the spoken one.

Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence. ~ Oscar Wilde

Sarcasm is a vocalic cue that is frequently misunderstood. Young children and those with little education or low intelligence often have trouble detecting sarcasm, though it is occasionally difficult for anyone to tell if a statement is meant seriously or sarcastically. This is particularly true when lacking familiarity with the speaker’s personality.

People use paralanguage cues to judge the sincerity, emotional state, and even personality of the speaker. This becomes more difficult with those who are not native speakers.

Some emotions are easier to identify than others. It is easy to distinguish between anger and empathy, but difficult to discern anxiety from fear.

Listeners and speakers vary in their competence to respectively decode and encode emotions; such a statement may (of course) be generalized to social awareness, but sussing emotions is a specific skill.

Discerning personality – and even disposition – via paralanguage is problematic. Soft speakers may be misinterpreted as insecure, or loud talkers as egoists.

People who speak quickly are typically judged more intelligent and objective. Though cognitive quality varies, it does take a quick mind to speak quickly. A cogent, rapid speaker can be quite persuasive.

Speaking quickly is efficient communication. Comprehension drops only 5% via increasing speech rate by 50% from average. A 100% rapidity rate lessens comprehension by only 10%. After that, comprehension begins to fall dramatically.

Vocalics create distinct impressions of the individual speaking. Appealing, influential voices are relaxed, resonant, and lower-pitched (especially for men). They are less nasal, less monotonous, less shrill, and less regionally accented.

Nasal voices especially elicit negative impression. In the United States, Midwestern voices tend to be the most accent-free, and while those of the Northeast the most nasal.