My sister Cho called me early this morning after I posted something on Facebook. My sisters and I have slowly started to develop our dad’s early morning tendencies, and posting anything online is like shouting out “I’m awake and not doing anything!” to whoever is up. Anyway, you can blame her for this post because I was scratching my head wondering if it would be a good idea to write about string theory when she called and complained that I never post anything about her on my blog.
Actually, that was not what she called about, but I hesitate to repeat the first half of our conversation in fear that no one else would find our conversation about taxing assets half as hilarious or a third as socially acceptable as we did without a lot of context. I’ll just jump ahead to the bit where she remarked that my recorded voice sounds more like I’m about to have phone sex than what I normally sound like, because it’s actually a more appropriate direction to go in.
This topic came up because I made her watch the video from my last post while we were on the phone. She hadn’t seen it, and I’m a feedback junkie, so I sat there listening to the tinny sound of ukulele strained through crummy computer speakers and her cell phone while she watched. Her running commentary was something like this:
Cho: “…Is that you playing the ukulele?”
Cho: “Yeesh, is that you speaking?”
Cho: “It doesn’t sound anything like you.”
Me: “Well, it is.”
Cho: (snort) … “Huh. Did anyone say anything to you on the bus?”
Me: “Oddly, no.”
Cho: (as video ends in background) “You’re such a dork. Why do you do that thing with your voice that makes you sound so different? It’s like when you answer the phone at work and you always sound like you’re about to have phone sex.”
I have to note here first that I think Cho is crazy and second that I do not work as a phone sex operator, in case you were wondering. I just have a polite, chipper voice that I reserve for people who I’m occasionally obligated to talk to about things like classroom reservations or customs paperwork. People I actually like are generally stuck with my lazy, gravelly normal voice.
In my defense, I am not alone in my tendency to shift my identity relative to the social circumstances. I’ve noticed this in people I hang out with in different settings—a waiter in a restaurant is addressed in a slightly different voice than a professor in a classroom, who gets a completely different voice than a group of friends watching baseball or late-night political comedy. It’s as if we’re all running around throwing our voices into metaphorical phone booths for a quick costume change to preserve some sense of secrecy around our true identities.
At the same time…it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly changes. It’s not like anyone I know starts aspirating their wh- words like “hwhale” or “hwhat” in order to sound more educated, or starts saying “homey” or “shizznit” to sound more cool and casual. The shift is subtle and maybe almost subconscious, but it’s there.
I think Cho may feel inclined to give me a particularly hard time about it for the same reason she lovingly lets me know how idiotic I sound when I try to mimic other accents. She was telling me about this nurse she works with who has a talent for accents and a tendency to change them randomly to…I don’t know what. Shake things up a little? Keep people on their toes? Get a few laughs? Either way, since this nurse is good at the accents, she can get away with it. I periodically go through phases of feeling the urge to adopt various accents in a similar way, but can’t seem to manage the subtlety that makes it work. Just call me Mickey Blue-Eyes.
So maybe that’s my problem with switching the social register as well—lack of subtlety. I am, after all, the awkward sort of person who at least wonders if I should aspirate my wh- words in certain company, so it is possible that my chipper, polite work-voice takes the social shift a step too far.
Or maybe Cho is just crazy.