Table of Contents
- What is Paralanguage? (Definition)
- PSA: Pronouns, Sensory Words and Adjectives
- Verbal Back Channels
- Lowered Voice
- Phonetic Convergence
- Accent or Dialect
- Fast Talking
- Incessant Talking
- Lowered Enthusiasm
- Tongue Clicking
- Vocal Pitch
- Vocal Cadence
- Vocabulary Range
- Voice Mini-FAQ
What we say may not be as important as HOW we say it. Our voices are unique:
- Science shows that depression can be detected just by hearing our voice.
- Newborns can even recognize their mother’s voice.
- Many banks even have voice biometrics to identify customers.
In this ultimate guide, I will teach you everything you need to know to read vocal body language, including:
- the perfect words to say to instantly build rapport with someone
- when to use silence (and when to avoid it)
- what differentiates normal speakers from leaders
- … and more!
What is Paralanguage? (Definition)
Paralanguage describes the physical mechanisms of producing nonverbal vocal qualities and sounds. It is similar to prosody, which describes all variations in the voice that accompany speech and help to convey its meaning.
As humans, we react to and understand how crucial and unique a person’s voice is.
In a huge study over the radio, 4,000 listeners heard 9 different speakers and guessed their traits:
- The results found that while age and sex were able to be guessed with high accuracy (not very surprising), what was astonishing was that a speaker’s job or occupation could be accurately guessed.
- For example, actors and clergy members were always consistently identified, just by hearing their voice.
Recognizing certain vocal cues can help you pinpoint exactly what changed, instead of just “feeling” that something is off.
Prosody describes all variations in the voice that accompany speech and help to convey its meaning.
Paralanguage is about physical mechanisms of producing nonverbal vocal qualities and sounds.
And before we jump into the cues, if you’re looking to tune your voice for maximum confidence and power, I recommend checking out my other guide here: How to Speak with Confidence and Sound Better
PSA: Pronouns, Sensory Words and Adjectives
Chase Hughes mentions an acronym called PSA. This acronym stands for Pronouns, Sensory words, and Adjectives.
What It Means: What kind of pronouns does a person use? Their vocabulary might indicate their underlying interests. For example, let’s say your friend Sarah just finished her first day at a new job. If you ask her, “How was your new job?” she might respond in 3 ways:
- “I feel great. I love the job. I love the salary.” Using “I” indicates she focuses on herself and is prioritizing her needs.
- “The people are great. I love my new boss. Everyone seems so nice.” Focusing on other people indicates she prioritizes others. Sarah may be very caring.
- “The office environment was good. Parking is great. The computers are high-tech.” Object words indicate a focus on objects. There may be something wrong, or Sarah might just be a tech geek.
Pro Tip: Use PSA to Spot a Lie
Watch for the flow of pronouns. Do they change easily during a conversation? Does a person say, “I went to the store… Then saw him… and I grabbed the box”? This indicates truth.
Chase Hughes mentions if a story is rehearsed or is a lie, it would be more consistent in pronoun usage.
What It Means: Sensory means that a person will tend to favor one sense over another. For example, a person may say something like, “That rubbed me the wrong way.” If they are physical or they like to touch, they might say, “That feels great!” or “I am touched.” Audio lovers may say, “That sounds great,” if they’re an auditory person. You may easily spot these sensory words in emails or texts. I find this is a great way to decide what gifts I want to give people during the holidays!
What It Means: You can actually use a person’s own adjectives against or WITH them. Pay attention to a person’s favorite positive adjectives. They might describe things as:
- or my personal favorite, fabulous!
Now take these favorite words and use them at the close of a negotiation, or to make your shiny product sound amazing, or when you’re ending a conversation to make a dynamite impression. You can even take negative words they use, like horrible or atrocious, to describe their competitors!
What It Means: Intonation is simply the rising and falling of the voice during speech. It’s the “speech music” of a language and can be unique for every person.
If you want a good idea of how powerful intonation can be, have you ever heard someone WITHOUT intonation?
Yeah, chances are, they sound robotic and unemotional, at best. Intonation can change the way you appear AND give away your inner emotions. In general:
- Rising Intonation = curious, submissive, asking questions
- Falling Intonation = authoritative, demanding, concluding our speaking turn, stating facts
Every culture has specific intonation patterns, and we use them to express emotions and meanings that words alone can’t do.
Want an extra juicy, super special pro tip? You can even make a judgment call on if someone is lying by their intonation. And what better example than UFOs:
Body language expert Mark Bowden gives his opinion on this fantastic episode of Unsolved Mysteries (it’s on Netflix!):
Here’s the scoop: Jane Green, a witness of a strange UFO sighting in Berkshire, Massachusetts, uses a downward intonation whenever she says the words “dusk” and “dark” to describe the time she saw the UFO. Mark Bowden says the downward intonation is a great indicator she’s very certain about this.
However, she has more of an upward, uncertain intonation when she says the location words “Stockbridge” and “Great Barrington.” So does that mean Jane is unsure about the location of the UFO sighting? Not quite. Mark explains there’s a hidden meaning behind it all: Jane is just unsure the listener is familiar with these two places, so she uses the upward intonation in a “do you know these places?” nonverbal way.
What It Means: The definition of upspeak, or uptalk, is a rising of the voice’s inflection, usually at the end of a sentence. Upspeak is common in certain parts of America and may be common among people with low confidence or even done out of habit. Studies show a single instance of uptalk can negatively impact a listener’s impression of the speaker because it sounds tentative or lacking in confidence2.
Uptalk is most often used by women—but it needs to end! If you’re a woman who upspeaks, upspeaking literally weakens everything you say by undermining its power. It’s like trying to water your plants with a straw instead of the hose.
Get rid of this nasty habit by training yourself to speak with a downward intonation at the end of your sentences instead. You can even shift downward midsentence for a more powerful effect.
Try it! Say this sentence with an uptalk inflection, then switch it downward: I am ready to give a powerful speech. See how the meaning changes completely? Here’s a video example explaining upspeak:
You’ll sound more commanding and authoritative by speaking downward. This is SUPER helpful in business, and you’ll notice 10x increased efficiency this way.
Pop Quiz: How Many Times Do You Laugh?
OK, really fun one here. Researchers have gathered data on the average number of laughs per day. Can you guess how many time we laugh every day? Is it:
a) 3 times
b) 8 times
c) 12 times
d) 15 times
The answer? Drumroll, please…
Adults laugh on average 15 times per day3! Did that number surprise you? I found that to be very reasonable. Also, preschoolers laugh on average 400 times a day—maybe adults have a lot to learn from kids!!
What It Means: Shared laughing is a form of receptive behavior. When you crack a joke, and the other person shares a laugh with you, this is a good sign that they are open to connecting with you (especially if the joke wasn’t particularly funny).
Imagine if you crack a joke, and the other person doesn’t even pretend to laugh. What a mood killer!
But laughter is more about building relationships than actually being funny. Only 15% of our laughter has to do with jokes. In fact, neuroscientist Robert Provine found that laughing is 30x more likely to occur in a social situation than in solitude3.
The Study: In one study, participants were videotaped watching funny video clips in 3 different situations:
- with same-sex strangers
- with same-sex friends
The result? Those who watched alone laughed significantly less than with friends OR strangers.
Evolutionary psychologists say that humor is exchanged between people in romantic and friendly interactions to “establish potential relationships or maintain existing ones.” Think of a fun date you might have had in the past. Chances are, you were having a great time and laughing and even trying to make your date laugh.
The more a man can make a woman laugh, the more attractive she will find him. And men are attracted to women who laugh at their jokes.
Fun Fact: Provine also found that women do most of the laughing and smiling during courtship.
So why do we love laughing so much? Researcher Paul Ekman found that one of the reasons is because when we see a smiling face, endorphins are released into our system3. In short, if you smile, we smile. Neurologist Henri Rubenstein even found that one minute of laughter provides up to 45 minutes of subsequent relaxation3.
Laughter is one of the best natural remedies to ANY sadness we have.
Laughter is also an indication that someone is relaxed. Have you ever noticed someone being really stiff and rigid during a conversation? Stiff, unrelaxed people usually do not genuinely laugh, unless it is a nervous laugh. So if someone isn’t laughing, it might not be because you’re unfunny. They just might be uncomfortable or not receptive yet.
Did You Know? Creating Laughter = Dominance
The ol’ days of associating laughter with jesters is gone. In fact, the ability to make others laugh is a highly dominant trait. Just think of the most charismatic, dominant people you know. Or Will Smith, ‘cause he’s like, super charming and funny.
Subordinates will even laugh (or force it) to appease superior people. And superiors my even make subordinates laugh but restrain laughing themselves to appear dominant3.
Bonus Video: Are you a silent laugher, a boomer, or even a snorter? Here are the most common types of laughs I’ve seen over the years. Scientific? Not really. Fun as heck? You bet! Check it out below:
And if you lack a funny bone, don’t fret! Learning to be funny is a skill. Check out these resources:
Verbal Back Channels
Verbal back channels are the filler words we use in conversation. They are the “oohs” and “uh-huhs” during speech that indicate the interest of the speaker and show they are paying attention.
What It Means: Verbal back channels are quite normal and even a good sign that someone is interested in your conversation. Look for these other gestures of interest:
- head nodding
- raised eyebrows
- tilted head
- feet pointed toward you
Pro Tip: How to Be More Interesting
Here’s some secret sauce you can use to be more interesting: use more gestures. A 2009 study found that the more speaking gestures a person used, the more back channel responses they got in return (and likely, interest). In short, the more you give, the more you receive.
But there are other ways back channels may potentially indicate negativity. Filler sounds like “aah,” “hum,” coughing, or hesitations may communicate a momentary loss of words. Americans are notorious for using fillers as we try to figure out what to say, struggle with finding the right words, or bide timBut there are other ways back channels may potentially indicate negativity. Filler sounds like “aah,” “hum,” coughing, or hesitations may communicate a momentary loss of words. Americans are notorious for using fillers as we try to figure out what to say, struggle with finding the right words, or bide time during speeche during speech2.
There’s even a way to know if someone wants you to finish what you’re saying. Look for when back channel cues are used rapidly, instead of slowly and normally. These fast back channels can mean someone is requesting you finish so they can leave or take their speaking turn1.
What It Means: Depending on the vocal characteristics we produce, moaning can have many meanings, from sexual pleasure, discomfort, or happiness. It’s also a super short way of compacting a whole phrase or sentence down into one syllable. In my observations, men tend to moan when they’re focusing on a particular task and you ask them a question. This may mean they don’t want to be bothered.
What It Means: How low can you go? Deeper, lower voices generally indicate power and dominance.
But did you also know we might shift our voice pitch, depending on the circumstance? You may notice in a dating situation or when meeting a potential guy partner that his voice may lower.
Since research shows that females have a strong preference for deeper male voices, this is an evolutionary, usually subconscious, act. Deeper male voices are also more likely associated with a man who has a broader chest, bigger torso, and more testosterone—basically, a man-hunk who can ward off competition from other males.
However, a 2010 study found that both men and women tend to lower their voices if they find someone attractive while talking with them. And some women may actually go higher to increase their perceived femininity. During high school English class, I remember I consciously shifted my voice a pitch or two too high just because my crush was in that class. I still cringe at how unnatural I must have sounded!
What It Means: Phonetic convergence is a phenomenon that occurs when two different people start talking to each other, and as time passes in the conversation, their speech becomes more similar to each other’s.
Have you ever noticed this weird phenomenon? We might do it because we like someone. Factors such as speech rate, pitch, volume, and even accent interchanging can occur.
If you notice someone talking more like you, this might mean they are attracted to you or interested. This might be their brain’s way of subconsciously trying to become more “similar” to you. After all, like attracts like!
Accent or Dialect
What It Means: Many linguists have suggested that an accent is a combination of 4 components: vocal placement, intonation, pronunciation, and word liaisons. There are many variables to these components, and we use them to identify people of the same cultural and psychological makeup or separate those who might be different from us.
Pop Quiz! Accent or No Accent?
Are you a big fan of accents like me? I love the Spanish one and how the R’s roll off the tongue. But studies might suggest otherwise. In one study, volunteers listened to different recordings of true or false trivia with voices that had different accents, and rated the recordings’ believability. Can you guess which voices were rated with higher believability?
a) Voices with accents
b) Voices with no accent
c) They were the same
The results were shocking. Native accents were judged as much more truthful than those read in a heavy foreign accent (like Italian, Korean, and Turkish). And the voices with only a mind accent were still more believable.
So why the bias? What’s the catch?
There’s some brain science here: the reason probably has to do with cognitive fluency. When a voice is unfamiliar to us, our brains go into super logical mode and have to work harder to process the information. Since our brains don’t like hard work, we associate that with less believability.
Accent bias is inevitable, but realizing it can help eliminate it altogether.
We can see this behavior in the animal kingdom too. Some birds instinctively sing songs common to their own species, without having heard another bird sing the song. They may even develop a variation on the melody that reflects a local dialect when they hear songs of their particular group, which is similar to what humans do1.
What It Means: We’ve all heard the term “silence is golden” before. But actually, did you know silence might be more negative than positive in normal conversation?
Silence can be an indicator of shyness, lack of confidence, anger (as in the silent treatment), or not knowing what to say. I still remember the time I went on stage, had a long brain fart, and embarrassingly walked off stage. *cringe*
Silence is ambivalent. And we don’t like ambivalent people.
Fears, the desire to impress, the pressure to perform, or the pressure to immediately come up with an amazing answer are common stresses that all lead to silence. We’ve all been there, right?
Silence isn’t all that bad, though. Silence can also be used powerfully if your other body language cues emphasize confidence, which is a sign of deep thinking or emphasis. Or a sign that you’re a mime.
You might also see a married couple sitting together eating in silence at a restaurant. Does this indicate their love has dwindled? Nope! My 9-year-old self might have thought so. But it can be a sign they’re good old friends when they can sit together in peaceful silence, without feeling the need to keep up cheerful chatter4. Can you sit comfortably in silence with your best friends?
Pro Tip: How to Improve Your Concentration and Brainpower
One study found the time required to solve addition problems was significantly greater when a person used filled pauses versus just staying silent1. So if you really need to focus, consider pausing before you talk with open body language to signal you’re thinking but not closed off.
Here’s a great example of pausing. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair pauses during his speech regarding the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales (timestamp 0:27):
Notice how Blair pauses a lot, and his speech rate is much slower than normal. When someone is showing genuine sincerity, they usually do not change their speech rate much. His slowed speech with long pauses could possibly indicate that he is trying to overplay his sincerity and that Diana’s death didn’t affect him so much, after all.
Pop Quiz! Did you know people randomly drop off words during speech? In other words, people kinda sound a lil’ more like this when thurr talkin’ ‘cuz it’s jus easier ‘n faster. But did you know what % of words are usually cut off in a conversation?
British linguist Keith Johnson found that people relax or drop more than 60% of words in normal conversation! Talk about efficiency.
What It Means: When someone is mumbling, they might be feeling timid or shy. Other times, it might be from laziness. But mumbling can also be caused by an increase in talking speed beyond normal. This sometimes happens when people are feeling awkward or rushed in large group settings. Or maybe they’re just introverted.
Want to see what happens when someone mumbles in public? Here’s a hilarious social experiment to check out:
Scoffing is a shortened laugh. You might hear it as a small poof of air coming out, coupled with lowered eyebrows. Scoffing can happen when a person shows an air of superiority or astonishment at something. See it in action here between an ex-couple, where the man immediately scoffs in response to a question the woman asks (timestamp 1:55):
What It Means: Are you a stutterer? I don’t often tell others, but I used to have a small stutter as a kid. Research shows there is a correlation between stuttering in adults and social anxiety disorder. And what about younger people?
Adolescents who stutter are found to be more hesitant to communicate with others, and they even try to hide their stuttering. They may have one of many “stutter starts” such as “I… I… I…” or vocal buffers like “ah, er, ah” linked to turning requesting1.
But if you gather a correct baseline and notice someone stuttering, they may just be feeling anxious in a situation. Heck, even Obama stutters sometimes:
And Lance Armstrong also stutters. When questioned about whether a kid has ever asked Lance Armstrong if they should take performance-enhancing drugs, Lance has a hard time answering this question, starting 4 different times to answer (timestamp 0:34):
What It Means: People generally tend to increase their speaking rate when they are nervous. A 2012 study explains that when a speaker is in front of an audience, adrenaline rushes through their body, which warps their experience of time. The sensation of faster time causes them to speed up.
Speeding through comments or an apology also causes it to lose its meaning and sincerity. Fast speech at the wrong time suggests someone has issues such as social anxiety, reluctance, or lack of conviction2.
If you’ve ever noticed someone giving a presentation, they may seem to speak faster than normal. But if you’re a nervous presenter, taking time to actually pause would make you seem calmer and more controlled. In fact, I do this a lot in my TED talk:
On the other hand, faster speech is associated with extroversion1. Depressed patients generally tend to speak slower, take a longer time to complete the same number of words, and display longer pauses between words and sentences than people who aren’t depressed do.
What It Means: OK, let’s take it to the next level. Have you ever run into someone who just doesn’t seem to stop talking?
Watch for this sign, especially if you’re talking to an arrogant VIP. If you’re at a party, people who talk your ear off are letting you know you’re not important2. Shock can also cause someone to talk incessantly, which is why you may see a person talking nonstop during times of crisis.
Here’s an example of unusually long talking. During a “sexy photo” scandal, former US politician Anthony Weiner was accused of sending some rather raunchy pictures to a woman on Twitter. Watch as he clearly avoids saying, “No,” and keeps rambling when asked if the leaked photo is him (timestamp 2:09):
He was later found guilty of sending inappropriate photos to a 15-year-old girl and sentenced to 21 months in prison.
What It Means: The definition of sneering is a disgusted and angry facial expression, characterized by a corner of the lip rising upward. It is typically caused by anger, irritation, or if a person is under physical and emotional threat3. The teeth may be visible during a sneer.
Last week I was out in the back playing hide-and-seek with Sienna. I ran up behind a tree, and all of a sudden, I saw something terrifying: Sienna was sneering at me! She scared the daylights out of me! I asked her why she sneered, and she said she saw a monkey do it on TV.
The truth is, sneering is an evolved form of attacking or defending with our teeth. Human sneering is similar to ape sneering.
Gymnast McKayla Maroney made her “not impressed” sneer famous after she lost out on a gold medal:
What It Means: If you notice someone’s voice sounding less enthusiastic or emotional, they may be feeling vulnerable, anxious, stressed, or hiding something.
Less emotionality may also be an indicator of lying. People who aren’t lying experts may feel they are breaking their values, and thus be less enthusiastic to tell their lies. However, psychopaths and daily liars tend to ignore this pattern, so don’t confuse emotions with telling the truth.
What It Means: Tongue clicking reveals disapproval of something or frustration. It’s usually done by parents who disapprove of an action their kids did, and it’s often accompanied by a head shake, pressed lips, and lowered eyebrows.
What It Means: How do you pitch? Unlike intonation, pitch is how high or low your voice naturally is. Our brain likes to think of a lower pitch as more soothing and a higher or cracking pitch as more nervous5. The pitch we use also tends to match our partner’s. Notice how over time, a couple will slowly sound more and more alike? That’s the couple’s effect in action.
How Leaders Change Their Pitch
In one study of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Carly Fiorina, all four politicians were found to use a pitch that varied when talking to others of similar social status. However, their voices conveyed “authoritarian charisma” for the most part.
In relaxed late-night talk shows, however, they all used a “healthy” or normal voice, the kind of voice they would use to speak with their families.
What It Means: Vocal cadence is the way your voice flows. It’s the pauses between your words, and how the rhythm sounds. If you notice a slowing of someone’s cadence, this indicates they’re thinking carefully. It can also indicate someone is being truthful, as they are “coming clean” with the truth.
Another way to think of cadence is to think of your voice like a song. And who has a better song-like voice than former US President Obama’s? His cadence is memorable and iconic and helps rally any crowd to support him. Check out this clip at the beginning of the Iowa caucus victory speech (you even notice when he says the word “SAID,” that he extends the word and makes it sound melodic, almost like he’s preaching:
Pro Tip: How to Tell if a Lie is Rehearsed
Watch when someone tells you a story. If you’re wondering if it’s a lie or the truth, you’ve got to watch for the cadence. Body language expert Scott Rouse mentions in the video below something called loping. This is when a person is talking in a rhythm. Notice a change in their loping, like if they suddenly become surprised or angry or upset. This is an indicator of someone telling the truth. People who lie may speak rhythmically as they’ve rehearsed a story before.
In the video, notice how Jane describes her account and raises her eyebrows, cutting off her story. This is an example of cutting the lope (timestamp 5:50):
What It Means: Research in linguistics shows a direct relationship between the amount of status, power, or prestige a person has and their range of vocabulary3.
The higher up someone is in their social ladder, the more likely they are to be better at communicating in words and phrases.
How does vocabulary play out in the world of politics? Researchers found that US presidents who were conservative used a greater proportion of nouns in major speeches. The researchers, led by Dr. Aleksandra Cichocka of the University’s School of Psychology, established that conservatives generally, to a greater degree than liberals, tend to refer to things by their names, rather than describing them in terms of their features. An example would be saying someone “is an optimist,” rather than “is optimistic.”
Why? Because nouns, rather than adjectives, are seen to preserve stability, familiarity, and tradition, which tend to be more highly valued by conservatives than liberals.
Is Trump’s Speech Really Elementary?
Have you heard that Donald Trump’s speeches use an elementary vocab level? Well… It’s not wrong. Researchers analyzed lexical density of the 2016 US Primaries, or how much actual information there was in the words spoken. Trump scored the lowest for lexical density, and he also reused the same phrases more than other candidates.
One great example of how vocabulary can stick comes from a story by body language expert Gregory Hartley. He talks about how he met a familiar waitress one day, but out of the blue, she used a different word he never heard her use before. Why? Later, after some talking, he found out she was hanging around a new boss and his vocabulary “stuck” with her (timestamp 1:20):
Are men or women better at reading vocal cues?
Overall, women are better than men at identifying vocal emotions, according to a 2018 study.
Can you identify personal traits from the voice alone?
Yes! Most people can agree on traits such as masculine or feminine, young or old, enthusiastic or apathetic, energetic or lazy, and even attractive or ugly1.
Can we remember someone’s voice?
The short answer is it depends on the time. We may remember how a person’s voice sounds, but over time our memories will fade, similar to how we may forget a friend’s appearance after a while. To further explain, look no further than the famous trial of Bruno Hauptmann:
In 1932, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s baby was abducted from the upper floor of their home. Bruno Hauptmann was named the killer, and Charles Lindbergh even claimed he recognized Hauptmann’s voice as the voice of the kidnapper, even though it had been 3 years since the kidnapping.
So what’s the verdict? Science says we have a bad memory, even if our voices don’t change much. Research found that memory accuracy drops sharply after 3 weeks, and after 5 months, dips to 13%. Many even swore Hauptmann, who was sentenced to death for the kidnapping, was innocent and falsely accused.
Are phone calls better than emails or text?
Yes! Whenever you can, opt for a phone call—or even better, a video call. Emails have been shown to be less accurately decoded than when the same messages are sent through voice-to-voice and face-to-face conditionsnchi. In another study, girls who sent text messages to their mothers after undergoing stressful experiences had cortisol levels similar to not interacting with a parent at all, while those who interacted on the phone or in person showed increases in oxytocin (because they had access to prosodic cues from their mother)1.
Are there any other vocal cues you notice that I didn’t cover? Leave a comment below, and check out the rest of the body language guides in our series.
Sources:1 Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2 Navarro, J. (2018). The dictionary of body language: A field guide to human behavior. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. 3 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion. 4 Morris, D. (2012). Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Digital. 5 Navarro, J., & Karlins, M. (2015). What every BODY is saying: An ex-FBI agent’s guide to speed-reading people. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!