When people hear a man talk and guess he’s gay, they’re really listening to how he says his vowels, suggests new research.
In past studies, researchers have recorded homosexual and heterosexual men speaking long passages from texts of plays, and test subjects were pretty accurate in picking out the gay voices among them.
But Eric Tracy, a psychologist at Ohio State University, wanted to see just how little information people needed before they made up their mind about if a speaker was gay. He recorded a group of 36 gay and straight men speaking single syllable words, like “mass” and “soap,” and played it back to a test group of men and women.
The test subjects − volunteer college students — ranked each speaker on a scale from 1 to 7, to represent their guess about the speaker’s sexual orientation: gay (7 points) or not (1 point). The gay speakers received a score of 4.42 compared to the heterosexual speakers, who received an average score of 3.45.
Once Tracy found that his test subjects tended to perceive gay speech differently based on short words, he decided to look closer, to zero in on which part of the word was the trigger for the decision. “The thinking after that was: If they could do this for a single word, could they do it from a single letter sound from the word,” Tracy explained.
In the next round, listeners just listened to sections of the word. When they heard a combination of a consonant and a vowel for a word, such as "ma," the listeners were fairly certain in their guess, even when they were responding to an incomplete word. “When the vowel hit, people were pretty sure,” said Nicholas Sentario, a co-author on the study.
By Tracy's description, vowels spoken by gay men sounded longer, and louder.
The one sound that threw the listeners for a loop was the letter "s." When the subjects they heard the "s" sound, whose lisping is part of the stereotyped portrayal of gay speech, they seemed more likely to rank the person as gay. So, while they picked out the gay speakers correctly, they also tended to incorrectly pick the straight speakers.
Drew Rendall, a psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, warns that the study makes the assumption that there is such a thing as “gay speech,” and that the test subjects were responding to traces of the flamboyant dialogue that has become the generalization and stereotype for how gay men talk.
This is one of the issues that Tracy plans to address in possible future studies. He hopes to pick test subjects and speakers from varying backgrounds, broadening the scope of this initial experiment, whose participants were mostly college students.
Even if it does represent a small subsection of gay people, Tracy says his study might find application in places like automated voice recognition software, which could use a few tweaks when it comes to recognizing flavors and accents of male speech.
Tracy and Sentario presented their study on Monday at the conference of the Acoustical Society of America in Seattle.
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