The human voice is a powerful instrument. Through speaking, singing, whispering and shouting, our voices express much of the human experience. Our voices are also basic to our sharing meaningfully with others. Through verbal communication we express a range of emotions and experiences: anger, desire, sympathy, fear and amusement, among others.
I became particularly attuned to the significance of the voice during the last two weeks of December 2020. Here in Quebec, we were near the peak of the second pandemic wave, and at that time our student residence had a small outbreak of COVID-19. Although we only had a limited number of students in the residence, it was a very stressful time and experience for me. The outbreak meant that I was on the telephone numerous times with Santé Québec (811) and with Public Health. I was getting advice, sorting out quarantine, determining a testing regime and more.
Voice of kindness
In the midst of this, what I noticed above all was the kindness and quiet competence of the nurses and public health officials who spoke with me. In their voices I heard compassion, encouragement and patience, to a person. On the other hand, I never once heard a hint of judgment or disappointment or annoyance. With their voices, they were meeting me (and by extension those in the residence) with understanding and helpfulness. It was a remarkable gift in a challenging time.
When we think about how we communicate with one another, and empathize with one another’s experiences, we often think first of the faces we see. This is part of the reason that we bemoan endless Zoom meetings; we cannot fully see and respond to one another’s faces. Yes, there is certainly something lost in our not being physically present to one another. At the same time, though, we should not neglect the singular importance of the human voice for conveying our lives and experiences.
Power of voice
As human persons, we express a significant range of emotions through our voices. We are also particularly capable of hearing authentic expressions of human emotion and experience. Writing in American Psychologist, Michael Krauss of Yale argues that “voice-only communication is critical for empathic accuracy.” Further, that “facial and nonverbal expressions are a less reliable source of accurate emotion expression than the voice.” In other words, the naked human voice is perhaps best suited to draw us meaningfully into one another’s experiences and emotional landscapes.
Another study at UC Berkley in 2019 has produced an amazing, online map of 24 different emotional sounds that humans make. In ranging over the interactive map, you hear distinctive “vocal bursts” that express these 24 emotions. As you hear each sound, there is a powerful resonance; you can appreciate our capacity to “hear” what others are experiencing.
We humans are also, of course, capable of deception with our voices. But somehow that seems like a minor aside when it comes to the important reality – namely, that by our voices and speaking we share ourselves emotionally and may also support each other meaningfully. Our honest sharing in speech (leaving aside gesture and facial expression) is probably the best way to enter one another’s emotional worlds and experiential realities with compassion and grace.
Words of blessing
As I write these words in early January, I hardly know what February will look like in Quebec or other parts of Canada. But what I do know is that I have heard the voices of compassion and kindness when I needed them. Those voices have become an invitation to pay attention to the tone and cadence and content of my own speaking, that I might be a blessing through speaking, as I have been blessed.