Posted Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, at 3:07 PM
Photograph by paffy/Shutterstock.
Great news! A recent study in the journal Ethology reveals that men can detect from a woman’s voice whether she is menstruating. Psychologists Nathan Pipitone from Adams State College and Gordon Gallup from SUNY Albany recorded 10 women counting from one to five, at four different points in their menstrual cycles. Three groups of guys listened to the recordings. The first group was instructed to guess which of the four clips was made during the female speaker’s period. Though the men had a 25 percent likelihood, statistically, of choosing the correct recording, they flagged the menstrual voice 35 percent of the time—a significant difference, according to Pipitone and Gallup. (Perhaps the best part of this study is its coinage of the phrase “menstrual voices,” which Edith Zimmerman poetically explicated in the Hairpin last week. I’m reminded a bit of Coleridge’s “ancestral voices prophesying war,” from Kubla Khan, which makes sense, because “menstrual voices” often also prophesy war.)
The second group of men had the same task, except that researchers replaced the recordings made when the women were closest to ovulation with recordings made on a less fertile day. This was meant to soften the contrast between the sexpot ovulation voice and the “Leave me alone; I’m on my period” voice. Again, the guys correctly guessed the menstruation recording 34 percent of the time.
The third group had no idea they were participating in a study on fertility. They were asked to select, from the four recordings, the most “unattractive” voice—and yes, they picked the period voice 34 percent of the time. According to Pipitone, giveaways included lower pitch, quality, and mood. In fact, he said, all three of the test groups “seemed to determine the menstrual voices by picking the most unattractive voice.”
When I came across this study yesterday, my face-palm was followed by a melancholy moment. Perhaps studies on the baggage of the human voice—what it can tell us without the help of words—are starting to say more about our nostalgia for old-fashioned communication than about what the researchers actually hope to prove. (Women’s voices sound slightly crankier during menstruation? Whoop-de-doo.) In a culture where Gchatting or emailing the co-worker 2 feet away comes as second nature to many of us, it seems as though unlocking the special properties of spoken language has become an elegiac pursuit, not just a scientific one. In honor of classic oral communication, we’ll let this particular inane ovulation study slide.