Speaking like a woman is a big, complicated area. There are so many ways that your voice, let alone how you talk, has an impact on how well you do or don’t pass, that it’s going to take more than just one post to cover everything.
So for this post, I’m going to focus not so much on voice (as in the pitch and resonance of your voice) but on what you say and how you talk. Men and women talk in very different ways and it’s important to start practising how you speak as a woman in order to pass more successfully.
What are the big differences?
So, at risk of sounding like a 1950s ‘Girls have pink toys, Boys have blue toys’ housewife, there are some key differences in how men and women typically speak.
First of all, women (plenty of studies have shown) use more ‘filler’ type words in their speech: things like ‘like’, ‘sort of’, ‘I guess’, and so on. Men typically are a bit more declarative – they use fewer filler words and are a bit more to the point.
Then there’s volume – men are typically louder and a bit more monotonous; women speak at a bit of a quieter volume but also speak with a more modulated range of tones. So men’s voices are ‘louder and flatter’ (if that makes sense) while women’s are quieter but a bit more musical and breathy.
How you speak has a big part to play too. You’ve heard the term ‘mansplaining’, I’m sure. A lot of this comes down to how men converse. It’s often more about ‘things’ than it is about emotions. Men have a tendency to slip into more of a lecturing mode, and take it in turns to hold forth on a given topic, while women typically have more give and take, ask more questions and often delve into more emotional topics and side angles.
Quick disclaimer: obviously I’m looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum – there’s a lot of overlap and these aren’t hard and fast rules. Neither of these trends is better or worse than the other – each is more indicative of stereotypical traits of each gender. So these are the underlying trends that will help you figure out how to move yourself more towards the female end of the spectrum when you speak, which will then help you pass more effectively.
So what does this mean for you?
Well, first of all, listen to conversations around you a lot. Spend time thinking about what it is that the people you talk to or listen to are actually doing when they talk. Try to really focus on how the cis women around you communicate, and then start imitating that. If you know the general trends, as I outlined above, try looking out for when you are dropping into more stereotypically masculine ways of speaking and being in a conversation, and then remind yourself what you should try to do instead.
One way to do this is to ask a trusted friend. Your best bet is a cis woman – as I pointed out before, while having a supportive network of trans friends is really important, cis women are ‘native speakers’ in being women, and can give you advice and insight that trans women might be less likely to pick up on when it comes to navigating female norms and behaviour. Get your ally to prompt you when you’re slipping into a more masculine way of speaking – whether through a code word (I used the name ‘Octavia’ to indicate that someone’s pitch was dropping into a more masculine resonance) or by mentioning it after a conversation had moved on. Obviously you want this to be someone you trust who is going to find the best way to remind you in a way that won’t make you feel vulnerable or self-conscious, so it’s important to have trust there. Whenever you get prompted, try to bring yourself back to more typically feminine ways of talking if you can, perhaps by focusing on using more filler words or by making sure you’re not talking too loudly or monotonously.
If you realise that you’ve been really excited about a topic of conversation and have been talking about it for what feels like ages, ask the people around you if they’re still interested. You can make a joke out of it – don’t put yourself down, but say something like “I could talk about this for hours – but I’d love to hear what you think?” and if they respond with something, listen to them and reply to what they’re saying.
Alternatively, if you know you’re a bit of an expert on something, or you have a lot to say, foreground that at the start – “I could give you the three minute version or the ten minute one, if you’re interested?” And then try to pick up on how interested they actually are. Some cues for that is if people are responding with questions and prompts to hear more, or whether they’re looking disengaged or even – hopefully not! – checking their phones or looking around.
If you do feel you’ve been talking for a while, ask for someone else’s view. You can even broaden it to a more universal topic: “well, I know that [this topic] is something I can get really absorbed in. Is there anything similar that you have going on? What’s your [passion/hobby/equivalent]?” If someone opens up and starts talking about something that’s equally exciting to them, be aware that you’ve had your chance to speak, and put yourself in listener mode. Ask lots of questions, nod, smile and make appropriate eye contact to encourage someone to keep talking.
A quick tip is that women are typically a bit more engaged in what might seem like gossip. If you’ve grown up used to talking in a more male-centric way (where you talk about bigger topics rather than emotional events) then you might need to practise being or seeming interested in the more small talk side of things. Ask how someone is, ask after their family, friends or current dating life. Engage with the gossip because this is a really strong way that women bond together. Even if you couldn’t care less that Auntie Marge just got back from a great trip to Barbados, but the family don’t really like her new toyboy, ask about it and be sympathetic or responsive. Shallow-level conversations can often move onto deeper or more complex and interesting topics if you let them.
A final thought here is that if you enter a women’s group conversation but you’re talking in a more typically masculine way, you might find that unconsciously you change the dynamic of the group or people will find themselves feeling uncomfortable. Some of this may be to do with their own internalised feelings and politics, but if the way you speak resonates as more female, then you can avoid this issue altogether.
A note on pitch (pun intended)
The key with vocal training is that many women think it’s about making sure their voice is the right pitch, but honestly that’s far from the only element to change. I’m sure you can think of a few trans women you know who have a really high pitched voice but it sounds like someone doing ‘falsetto’ rather than a cis female voice. If vocal pitch sounds forced, this will unfortunately do more to out you than a more feminine vocal style with a lower pitch. In contrast, a good friend of mine has a pretty deep voice. It’s definitely higher than it used to be, because she’s worked on the pitch, but it still falls within the more typically masculine pitch range. However, she speaks in such a feminine way that you often don’t notice how deep her voice is unless you stop to think about it. Everything else seems so obviously feminine that the pitch becomes less important.
That is not a reason not to work on improving the pitch and resonance of your voice – if you can develop more feminine speech styles as well as a more feminine pitch to your voice, then that’s even better for passing. But while you’re working on training your vocal chords to resonate at a higher pitch, you can still also try to change the way you speak as well.
In terms of passing, I would definitely advocate doing all you can to improve your voice and way of speaking – lots of trans women now seem to forego changing their voice at all, which is obviously their choice, but it can be really jarring to see someone who passes visually perfectly, and then speaks in a typically masculine manner and pitch. If you’re happy with that, then that’s great, but it is one thing that you can absolutely work on even before you start HRT or see any visual impact of your transition, and the impact it can have on how well you pass is tremendous.
Like many things in transitioning, this is about practice, about consciously making the effort to change something that’s always been very natural to you in order to develop a more feminine aspect, and it takes time. Just be consistent and thoughtful and over time it will become your new normal, until one day you don’t have to think about it.
If you want someone to be a supportive ally and help you figure out what you need to do to help your voice pass with confidence, contact me to set up an initial appointment.