Fry It: Vocal Quirks of Americans

So, sometimes I know there’s something I want to address in this blog, but I can’t quite bring the idea to fruition. Whatever it is that is under my skin won’t evolve into anything clear and coherent to myself, leaving me unable to communicate anything clear and coherent about it to others.

Then, out of nowhere (and usually while doing something completely non-blog-related), the epiphany dawns, and boom–just like that–I have a grip on what’s been sizzling in the pan.

It’s called “vocal fry

Go ahead and follow the link. I’ll wait.

Yeah. This is a thing. It refers to a vocal quirk Americans (most often, but not only, women) have been embracing over the last few years. Vocal fry is the croak-y sound used to describe, say, Brintney Spears’ singing style, You can listen to what it sounds like here.

The truth is, I’ve been slow on the uptake. I mean, I’ve noticed it a lot, but never knew there was a word for it.  Vocal fry has evidently been a topic of public discussion in the US for at least the last year or two. So much so that a wave of pushback has taken hold, with some accusing those who call out or mock vocal fry as stretching to find just one more reason to pick apart and criticize every aspect of a woman’s behavior. (They have a valid point: I have spent the last half hour Google-searching some variation of “quirks of American male speech” and have come up with very little). EDIT: just found this one, lone gem of men frying it up, and here’s an article that suggests fry originated with British men in the 1960s

And yet…it really does stand out, especially when you spend most of your time in a fry-less environment. Both my kids (one girl, one boy) have asked me about it when they hear it when we’re in the US. We fry plenty of things here in Germany (hello, Wienerschnitzel!), but not our voices.

Germans, of course, have their own speech specialties. It’s well known that regional dialects here are so distinct that folks from different parts of the country sometimes  have a hard time understanding each other (is it a “Broetchen”? a “Weck”? a “Schrippe”? a “Rundstueck”? Ask for the wrong thing at the bakery, and you may well leave empty handed). The vocal melody  and use of speech softeners also varies regionally. But–and I say this as the mother of a twelve year old who often has a gaggle of giggling friends over chez Diehl–I have honestly not heard anything even resembling a vocal fry. I am very much hoping it stays that way.

I am going to place vocal fry in the same category as the rhetorical “sorry!” we Americans are so fond of (as are our English friends) as well as fry’s cousin, the vocal upswing (making statements sound like questions). Oh, and let’s not forget the “like” filler. The general heading of this category is titled “vocal tendencies I wish Ameicans would leave behind in middle school”.

To be fair, I wouldn’t mind seeing Germans add a softener or two in their speech repertoire, although I see signs of this already. For example, “Es waere schoen, wenn Sie [xyz] machen…” (“It would be great if you could do [xyz]…”) is a phrase I’ve encountered a time or two as a soft command. I’ve long gotten used to the more direct, utilitarian style of communication here, but the smiles and small talk that flow from Americans so naturally feel like a breath of fresh but familiar air when I’m back on US soil.

It is also important to mention that not every American uses vocal fry and upswing. It is prevalent enough that it has become a way to distinguish the likely American in a crowd, but for every three  “fry-ers” I can present a plain and assured talker who doesn’t sound like they need a throat lozenge.

And If I’m ever frying, for Pete’s sake, somebody please tell me.

Is a business partnership with the USA on your horizon? Book an intercultural and/or presentation training to maximize its success. Michelle promises to do her best to avoid funky vocal ticks.


Intercultural Communication in the Information and Digital Age

Information and technology overload is making us less informed.

Virtually any question we have is a few mouse clicks and a Google search away from an answer. Our social media newsfeeds hand-pick and deliver us headlines and analyses of events from around the world and even beyond it (Dear Parker Solar Probe: don’t forget to bring your strongest sunscreen…and take a selfie when you’re there!)

In the working world, technology from e-mail to digital messengers to WebEx to video conferencing connects us to our bosses, colleagues and customers on every continent. No passport or generous travel budget necessary, just a speedy internet connection.

Technology is great…except when it isn’t.

And yet, those answers we Google-search are often supplied by murky and dubious sources, social media newsfeeds are carefully controlled by algorithms that calculate our information preferences and select our headlines accordingly, and 24-hour news networks are often corporately owned and have their own intransparent news selection process. And that great digital technology for the office? I make a living hearing from clients about virtual messages that come across as too blunt, too wordy, too superficial, too „rude“, too friendly. Who knew a series of 0s, 1s and lots of wires could pack such an emotional punch?

At this point, we’ve all seen photos circulating of people sitting side by side, paying no attention to each other because they are engrossed in their Smart Phone universes. These along with laptops, tablets and ear buds have opened us up to a strange existence of keeping each other company in ignoring each other.

For sure the information age and the technology that brings it to us have their usefulness and benefits, so I’m not here to knock it. I’ve been a consumer of digital and social media long enough to see its bright and dark sides (and I am—ahem—still old enough to remember a life when none of it existed, at least not on a widespread scale).

While I genuinely enjoy the virtual conversations I can have at any time with folks from around the world, the convenience of not having to wrestle with awkward-sized newspapers and not having to wait for the news to come to me, I have also come to realize that so, so much is being lost in digital translation.

Folks who could discuss opposing viewpoints over a cup of coffee (or covfefe) and come out of the discussion with mutual respect and insight, if not agreement, are instead getting sucked down the black hole of comment threads, hurling expletives and other sentiments of ill will at each other. This stuff gets really personal and nasty. And the 24-hour information at your fingertips innovation makes face-to-face human interaction superfluous. You walked to your community library to do research? How cute!

So, consumption of infinite amounts of information alone does not make someone informed. In fact, it can swallow perspective and understanding. Even well-intended efforts to connect digitally often fail to capture nuance and para-language cues that are so essential to meaningful communiation. As a result, damage can be done to real-life relationships.

Which brings me to why I do what I do, the way I do it.

Training and facilitating intercultual communication seminars scratches two itches at once (I don’t do anti-itch creams): it allows me to put together and deliver information essential for the good folks of Germany to be aware of cultural norms in the USA in order to develop a better understanding of their American business connections. Part of this also includes raising their awareness of German cultural norms that could be misinterpreted negatively—especially when communiction takes place digitally rather than face-to-face.

Secondly, the seminars are a vehicle for us all to listen and learn, through in-person, lively and nuanced discussion. I get to hear, see and feel how my participants interpret situations, as well experience the differing perceptions amongst Germans themselves (plus, there aren’t only Germans in the seminars). We all grow through this give and take, and no two trainings are ever the same. Except that we always laugh. A lot.

Intercultural trainings are a great way to learn not only the basics of cultural norms, but also to connect with the subtilties of human interaction and how culture exerts its subconcious influence. A successful seminar leaves you with the ability to see your American / German business partners from a different vantage point as well as equips you with ready-to-use strategies for how to undo—or at least loosen—communication knots that hinder smooth business relationships. It points you to how to maximize the advantages of your virtual global connections by keeping your human touch in the foreground. A day in a seminar ideally leaves you more knowledgeable, open-minded, understanding and understood, receptive and energized for your next global encounter. What are you waiting for?

Do not let unnecessary cultural misunderstandings–so often compounded by virtual communication limitations and information-overload-driven misperceptions–derail business success. If a German-American partnership is on your horizon–or is already in place but in need of some smoothing over–book an intercultural training now!