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Science shows there’s more to a heartfelt conversation than just words

Read time: 4 mins
10 Jun 2020
Science shows there’s more to a heartfelt conversation than just words

Two words—boisterous and chatty—pretty much describe a typical conversation among friends. Every word uttered is not just a word that makes up the sentence; an array of emotions are conveyed through them. When we are upbeat and joyful, we tend to speak faster and in a higher pitch, while sadness slows us down and lowers our tones. We also talk differently to our friends, colleagues, and strangers. Are these observations anecdotal, or is there science behind our vibrant speech pattern?

In a recent study, researchers from India, Italy and the United Kingdom have proved that when we talk to our loved ones, the variations in our speech are independent of language and culture. It also shows that a lack of such variety in our talk can result in problems with social communication. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, was funded by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), Leverhulme Trust, Medical Research Council UK, and the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), India. 

"When you are talking to somebody who matters to you, you want to create as rich an experience as possible. You use not just good words but emotions, prosody, and modulations," points out Prof. Nandini Chatterjee Singh from NBRC, and the corresponding author of the study.

These variations are the result of how our tongue works with the sound waves generated from our vocal cords. It actively obstructs these sound waves to produce specific sounds of individual letters. A collection of all these variations constitutes the articulatory space for a person.

In the current study, the researchers used this articulation space to detect changes in speech. The larger the articulation space, the more vibrant the speech pattern will be. They tested pairs of 170 participants from India, Italy, and the UK, who had different levels of closeness with each other. These pairs belonged to the same gender and country and spoke the same language, to reduce differences in their conversation. The participants were asked to describe an abstract picture in detail to their partner for two minutes, while their voices were recorded. They also filled a questionnaire that measured their social communication.

The researchers analysed the collected voice recordings to generate a visual image of speech, called the spectrogram, which shows the changes in voice frequency and the time at which they occur. These changes include dips, rises, and pauses in our speech, which we use for better expression. 

The study found that people who knew each other better had a larger articulation space, implying that their voice had multiple variations and expressed changing emotions. These variations increased as the participants connected better with each other. Individuals with poor social communication had a smaller articulation space, and hence their talk was monotonous.

The findings show how important developing a better interpersonal relationship is for individuals involved in the field of communication, like teachers. Haven't we all attended a boring lecture? Well, the stem of the problem could lie in how it is spoken.

"Teachers who tend to speak in a monotonous voice do not realise that emotional communication is essential within a classroom," says Prof. Singh.

She believes that their study could help to set up a training model for efficient communication aimed at teachers, counsellors, businesses, and anybody in the public sphere.
The study crossed the barriers of language and cultures and found similar outcomes across participants.

"Such a test finds great application for a country like India, where we have multiple languages, and two people don't always communicate with each other in the native language. Acoustic features have a universality as compared to speech phonetics which are very language-specific", concludes Prof. Singh.  

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.