Did you know that the roots of personality type theories, such as the more holistic approach of the Temperament model, go all the way back to Hippocrates in the 4th century BC? But personality type studies in the last few decades have focused more on singular traits, like introversion and extraversion, or a group of traits, like the Big Five.
And apparently, introversion or extraversion can also influence your voice and perceived vocal effort in stressful situations — like performing. Keep reading to learn how.
"Why are you so quiet?" is a phrase introverts (including myself) are painfully familiar with. They are always feeling like the odd one in social situations, while simultaneously trying to act more extraverted, outgoing, gregarious or expressive.
If you are an introvert, chances are you are already aware of this fact. And you probably resonated with the above paragraph.
According to The Myers-Briggs Company, introverts make up 56.8% of the entire population. Yet, 9 out of 10 have reported feeling pressured to behave in an extraverted way.
Studies on the link between personality and voice go way back. The earliest one I could find with a quick literature search was from 1939 (1). Clinicians have also considered a potential link between muscle tension dysphonia (a voice disorder without an apparent, physiological cause) and personality traits in the more recent years (2).
A "trait theory" was even proposed to explain voice disorders, where a person's position on the introversion-extraversion scale can affect which vocal fold pathologies they might be prone to (3). Apparently, vocal fold lesion are seen more in those with high extraversion and muscle tension dysphonia more in those with high introversion.
So a study has looked into vocal function in introverts and extraverts during a stressful situation, which was public speaking. And they noticed numerous differences between these personality traits and vocal performance.
Let's see what they found.
Introversion vs. Extraversion
Even though these terms are usually used for social contexts — like how much of a "people person" you are — they are actually about how much external stimulation it takes to arouse your brain. This is related to how much is naturally going on inside.
A simplistic way to think about it is, if you have a highly active brain already, your tolerance to external stimuli will be lower, as in the case of introverts. Which is why introverts tend to be sensitive to threat and punishment, and display avoidance motivation (2). Whereas extroverts have a much higher threshold to external stimuli — in fact, they crave external stimuli regularly — and they are more sensitive to signals of reward.
But How Does It Relate To The Voice?
An interesting study from 2012 by Maria Dietrich and Katherine Verdolini Abbott looked into the trait theory of voice disorders (2). Specifically, they investigated the effect of a social stressor on the voice of introverts and extraverts.
To start with, measured some psychometric data (like extraversion, depression and voice handicap) they assessed the normal speaking voices of 27 participants each in extraversion and introversion groups.
Right from the beginning, they found that the introversion group reported more depression, neuroticism and voice handicap than the extraversion group. (Okay, so the introvert stereotypes might be based on some facts here...) And the introversion group scored higher in the vocal handicap indicator, even though participants were selected from vocally healthy people. Having a quiet voice and lack of projection, running out of air and being embarrassed to repeat themselves were among the scales that the introversion group scored higher on.
Then, the participants were put through a sequence that involved baseline speech, rest, anticipation, stress, recovery, and another baseline speech to evaluate the effects of social stress on their voices. And the said stressor was to prepare and deliver a short speech.
Unsurprisingly (or maybe surprisingly, depending on how you look at it), they found that there were distinct differences in extra-laryngeal muscle activity between the introversion and extroversion groups. Even though all participants reported higher subjective vocal effort during the speech, the introversion group had greater muscle activity especially during the stressor speech, which means they might actually be more prone to vocal problems. And this difference was not only in the stress phase: Introverts had more extra-laryngeal muscle activity overall, even during rest. This might suggest introverts have less efficient vocal functioning, since they exhibited suppressed laryngeal behaviour.
You might be wondering, how did the extraversion group do?
Well, turns out their voices were less affected by the stressor speech and they could actually maintain their usual vocal habits.
Of course, there are some limitations to how we can make inferences from this study. Firstly, the participants had no previous professional singing or voice training. It might be reasonable to think that challenges associated with personality traits and stress might diminish with focused training.
Secondly, remember how introverts scored higher in neuroticism? Apparently that can also influence the voice and cause vocal disorders apart from introversion. It might be difficult to separate the effects of neuroticism as a trait from introversion in real life.
Finally, it is important to note that introversion or extraversion are not psychological diagnoses like anxiety or depression, and the study is based on self-reporting. These traits might have other causes or implications, and their effects on the vocal mechanism are mainly unknown.
Apparently, being an introvert can increase your chances of having a voice disorder, especially if your are an occupational voice user and deal with stressful situations at work.
But...keep in mind that the participants of this study had no professional vocal training.
I would imagine spending focused time and effort on vocal efficiency would increase ones chances of reacting negatively under stress. In my experience, this is precisely why voice lessons and performance coaching can be life changing for introverts. You can learn to project your voice and be heard, with less effort and more confidence. All you need is an experienced vocal coach, one you can feel comfortable working with.
After all, being stressed in voice lessons would be counterproductive, right?
Moore, W. E. (1939). Personality traits and voice quality deficiencies. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 4, 33–36.
Dietrich, M., & Verdolini Abbott, K. (2012). Vocal function in introverts and extraverts during a psychological stress reactivity protocol. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 55(3), 973–987. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2011/10-0344)
Roy, N., & Bless, D. M. (2000). Toward a theory of the dispositional bases of functional dysphonia and vocal nodules: Exploring the role of personality and emotional adjustment. In R. D. Kent & M. J. Ball (Eds.), Voice quality measurement (pp. 461–480). San Diego, CA: Singular.
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