Are you a stupid woman? Do you have vocal fry? Ugh.

Image: iStock

‘Vocal fry’ is a strange phenomenon. While the phrase originated in the 1970s as vocal instruction lingo, it’s only after a recent story in Science magazine that titles such as Huffington Post, Gawker, TIME, Washington Post and The Atlantic have been reporting on this brand new irritating way women have of talking – a low, glottal creak.

Sounds a bit like this.


We’re told the Kardashians do it, Katy Perry does it, Zooey Deschanel… we’re persuaded that it’s a whole new linguistic epidemic, a “debilitating speaking disorder” that’s dangerous for our health and may prevent us getting gainful employment. Funny, because to me, it just sounds like the odd moment of lazy enunciation – something both genders have been guilty of since time began – but according to media reports, it’s a NEW THING STUPID YOUNG WOMEN DO. And don’t we love those?

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A recent This American Life podcast examined the phenomenon. Apparently the broadcasters used to receive complaints from listeners about the female hosts talking in Clueless-style ‘upspeak’ and were just unbearable to listen to. More recently, the catchphrase ‘vocal fry’ has found favour. Listeners complain that it’s “excruciating”, “so severe as to cause discomfort” … and other breast-beating things.

Does this remind anyone of the time Twitter toolbags started calling Leigh Sales “shrill” after her 2012 interview with Tony Abbott? Which was itself a repeat of Abbott calling Julia Gillard “shrill” in 2010? Watch out, Annastacia Palaszczuk – there’s a nasty bout of vocal fry headed right your way.

Vocal fry
Image: iStock


Vocal fry is just a buzzword from the hive mind that will probably mutate into a catchphrase for ‘that time we jumped the shark’ soon enough. But it got me wondering, why do we suddenly – en masse – latch on to happenings that either don’t really exist at all, or have been around forever?

A case in point is greyhound racing. The Four Corners documentary appalled us and got us talking about an industry that has existed in Australia since 1927. What did we really imagine things were like behind the scenes? And then there's the Melbourne Cup. Last November, a "nation grieved" when Admire Rakti and Araldo died.


Well, newsflash: horses die in races, or after races, every weekend. And we know that.

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So why do swings of mass opinion occur? Well, certainly it’s often triggered by the media – the Four Corners documentary on greyhound racing is a clear example and, of course, we are living in an age in which news stories are propagated around the world by media outlets (hello) and social media alike. Always, of course, it’s usually a reaction of outrage, which we just love. Check out Slate’s 2014: Year of Outrage for evidence.

But there’s a psychological term for jumping on the bandwagon. Contagion theories describe the wildfire spread of behaviour. Think about when someone starts applauding loudly in a crowd and everyone joins in, whether they feel as enthused or not. Complex contagion, in particular, describes our relationship with social networks: spreading common ideas, memes and hashtags. Multiple sources of exposure to an idea are required before someone adopts the idea themselves.

Observing a new ‘phenomenon’ or ‘epidemic’ like vocal fry should just serve to remind us that we need to think critically and step away from the pack. No hashtag required.