Things people have said to me:
Dog training instructor: “Get excited! Look happier! Make your voice happy! You have to sound HAPPEEEEE! If you don’t sound HAAPPPPEEEEE!!! your dog won’t know that she’s doing it right.”
Random stranger, after a 5-minute phone conversation: “You don’t seem like a very nice person.”
The Scientist, after sharing something meaningful: “Do you have any feelings about what I just said?”
Phone interviewer, mid-conversation: “I’m glad I’m recording this. You talk so fast, I could never take reliable notes.”
Many people, in many situations: “Shhh. Keep your voice down. The whole floor/house/airport/neighborhood doesn’t need to hear your story.”
More people than I can count (sarcastically): “Don’t sound too excited about it.”
Who Needs Prosody? Not Me
The first time I ever heard the word prosody was when Jess was in high school. She went to a performing arts magnet school, where she majored in creative writing. Occasionally her report cards would mention that she was working on prosody as part of a poetry class.
Naturally, I assumed that prosody was some sort of poetry reading technique and didn’t give it another thought.
Or Do I?
Fast forward to the day I came across “talks too loud or too softly” in a list of aspie traits. It was one of those traits that just stopped me in my tracks because it was something that had been a source of embarrassment at times. Most people I knew seemed able to intuitively control the volume of their speech. At least they weren’t always getting asked to speak up or lower their voice.
I, on the other hand, often have no idea whether I’m speaking at the right volume or pace.
After giving it some thought, I’ve realized that my “too quiet” voice usually happens when I lack confidence. For example, if I have to approach a stranger to ask a question that I’m uncertain about, I’ll almost certainly mumble it–often at breakneck speed–then have to repeat myself. Even if I prepare and think I’m using a normal volume, it still comes out mumbled, at least to start.
The quiet voice can also make an appearance when I’m not feeling very verbal and am having trouble finding the necessary momentum to initiate speech.
The “whoa that’s loud voice” also has two distinct triggers: excitement and environmental transitions. If I’m talking about something that excites me (read: anything special interest related), my voice will gradually gain volume, soon becoming way too loud for the situation. Somehow I don’t notice this happening until it’s painfully obvious by the look on the other person’s face. Or they just outright tell me to tone it down.
I didn’t catch on to the transitions trigger until someone mentioned it in a comment here. When I go from a noisy or echo-y environment to a quiet environment, I don’t realize that I can lower my voice and still be heard. I’ll go from speaking at an appropriately elevated level to be heard in a noisy parking garage to the equivalent of shouting once I’ve entered the much quieter building attached to the garage.
But Wait, There’s More
In addition to intonation, prosody also includes the stress and rhythm of speech. When the dog training instructor was constantly nagging me to sound “HAAPPPPPEEEE!!!” she was trying to get me to speak in less of a monotone.
The stress and rhythm of my speech can get erratic, especially in situations like dog training class where I periodically had to bring Emma out in front of the class and giving her commands to show that we were progressing. Week after week I got admonished by the instructor for not being enthusiastic enough.
The ironic thing is, my dog knows exactly when I think she’s doing something right or wrong. Animals are incredibly good at learning human social cues and, more importantly, they aren’t limited by the preconceived notions that people have about prosody. She learned my cues and integrated them into her understanding of the world.
When I was trying to be fake happy in those classes, she probably sensed my discomfort more than anything. She did much better in a later class with a different instructor–one who didn’t criticize the voice I was using to give commands.
Taken together, intonation, stress and rhythm make up the “music” of language. And that music is rich with social cues. Prosody can convey emotion and intent, telling us when someone is angry or lying, sad or sarcastic. It’s a big part of language pragmatics. (Pragmatics is a fancy way of saying the social function of language.)
An Autistic Thing
Difficulty with pragmatics–especially atypical prosody–is a common autistic trait. Not surprisingly, the difficulties are a two-way street. If you struggle with expressive prosody you probably also have trouble with receptive prosody (decoding the social cues in others’ speech).
A recent theory–one that makes a lot of sense to me–is that impairments in prosody are a result of atypical sensory processing*. Much of our social repertoire is learned by example. Most young children are close observers of the adults in their lives, looking to them to understand how to interpret situations and respond accordingly. However, for this to work, the child has to be able to pick up on the often subtle social cues that adults project. If a child doesn’t pick up on the nuances of prosody in the voices of others, it will be harder for them to learn how to use prosody in their own speech.
Like so much of social interaction, prosody feels like one of those things that if you don’t learn it young, it’s much harder to learn as an adult. I know that my voice is often flat, loud, fast, soft or otherwise off, but I rarely know it in the moment, as it’s happening.
*If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how our brains might be wired differently when it comes to prosody, the discussion section of the linked study has some interesting findings. If you want the short version: it appears that we use a completely different neural network to process speech prosody and we have difficulty turning off certain parts of our brain to focus on task-related processes while ignoring task-irrelevant information (which would account for why filtering out background sounds or visual distractions is so hard).