Women in General Conference: It’s Not a “Primary Voice”

As I watched the first General Women’s Session of conference (at least the first not retroactively declared as such) last night, I was once again taken aback by the vocal styling of the female speakers. As much as I love hearing women speak, almost every time I hear one in a general church meeting it requires extraordinary effort to focus on the message while ignoring the twinge in the back of my jaw at the awkward, stilted speech patterns.

I respect and admire these women, but I much prefer to read their words than listen to them. As soon as the first woman had uttered two sentences, I became apprehensive about all the social media posts that would refer to the “Primary voice.” Women are always accused of assuming a strange, forced lilt , as if all those listening are mentally handicapped and need special accommodation in order to understand the message.

While thinking about it again this morning, it occurred to me for the first time (I know, I’m slow—and thus probably do need the Primary voice…) that the women aren’t using a “Primary voice” at all. They are, generally speaking, emulating the male “General Conference authority voice.” We are accustomed to hearing men speak in the old-style oratory voice, with the odd, mid-sentence pauses, and the plodding emphasis. But hearing the same speaking style in a higher range is far less common. Being so unfamiliar, it puts us back in a place of openly evaluating the style—and noting the awkwardness of it in contrast to the typical, modern, conversational style.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a teleprompter issue. There are some speakers who seem to overcome the style (Uchtdorf, Dew, Okazaki come to mind) even with the teleprompters. They are often those with whom the congregations most strongly connect. Perhaps it’s due to a different native language, public speaking expertise, a generation unfamiliar with the formerly popular speaking style, or a combination of these things. But those who speak more like they usually talk, seem more personal and personable. They seem real and genuine.

The idea that perhaps the women are merely mimicking the common general authority speaking style, rather than using an elementary teacher approach, was somewhat vindicating to me. In my theory they are merely are trying to follow the pattern that seems to have been given the stamp of approval and correctness. In the real world, they likely use a normal, intelligent, adult conversational mode.

What do you think? Has “the Primary voice” ever grated on you? Do you think my theory holds an validity?

37 comments for “Women in General Conference: It’s Not a “Primary Voice”

  1. Huh, I never thought of it that way before. I think that in many cases that’s probably true! I generally reserve the Primary voice term specifically for people who sound as if they’re speaking to children when they have an adult audience though lol. At a recent BYU graduation, the woman encouraging the graduates to be involved with the alumni association caused some raised eyebrows that way.

  2. I would second Dave’s comment, that there’s a wide spectrum. Sisters Julie Beck, Elaine Dalton, Vicki Matsumori, and others never bothered me, even though they, to varying degrees, used a variety of the oratorical style of speaking you mention. In contrast, I have a hard time with Sister Rosemary Wixom, and far prefer to read her messages.

    Using your nomenclature, for “General Authority” voices, there is also a wide variance. The only one I really have a hard time with is Brother Russell Nelson’s. As a side note, Brother Richard Scott’s is similar, but from him it seems more genuine to me, for some reason. I think that’s the problem many people have with “Primary/General Authority” voices—they often don’t sound very authentic, and can come across as false or patronizing.

    I feel many of the current Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary leaders lean heavily toward the Nelson end of the spectrum, which might be what people have a problem with, and why it is getting mentioned more often. But not all of them are the same, either, by any means—maybe it’s just her awesome Southern accent, but I could listen to Sister Neill Marriott all day.

    In all, I think listeners just want speakers to be authentic and genuine, and particularly for feminist women, hearing their female church leaders echo the non-equal rhetoric of their brothers can sit in their minds as non-genuine, whether that is or isn’t the actual case.

  3. Dave, there are many others and, of course, there is a continuum. Those are just the first that came to my mind.

    mormongeologist, I would like to have seen that. Or maybe not!

    mirrorrorrim, when I mentioned this to Sam this morning, Nelson and Scott were the examples I mentioned. I think Nelson probably the most extreme.

    Man’s waaaaays…remove people from officccce…or businesssss…when they grow ooooold…or become disabled.

    Scott tends not to put in so many mid-sentence pauses, but kind of grinds out the plosives and initial consonance and puts dramatic pauses between sentences. But neither is a very natural speaking style.

    This is not meant to be a scholarly analysis. Your milage may vary. :)

  4. A recent episode of This American Life discussed criticism of women’s voices, vocal registers, vocal fry, etc. Apparently hating on the way women talk has been around for decades. There are some theories out there that it’s our subconscious sexism or hidden insecurities (even if we’re feminist women) that causes some women’s audible voices to be so grating. It’s interesting to think about why people’s voices can evoke such strong reactions, consciously or subconsciously. A voice can be closely linked to one’s identity, so when we detest someone’s voice it may actually be the person we are detesting. I don’t know how any of that particularly relates to “primary voice” but the female vocal register has definitely been on my mind lately. We women already have so much to overcome to even come close to a level playing field, and now we need to worry about how our voices sound, too.

  5. Marla nailed it. Harping on Primary voice is so 2010; now let’s hassle female GC speakers for vocal fry! A much more current criticism. One must always stay up to date, you know.

  6. It does bother me a bit, especially lisps and denture lisps with the sensitive mic. But what I’ve found impressive and grown to like is that sometimes the most powerful, direct and insightful messages are hidden behind the super friendly tone. Sister Wixom is one example, Cecil Samuelson is another.

  7. Hahaha, I love your spelled-out impression of Brother Nelson—it’s spot-on!

    It would be so interesting if the talks were printed that way! But I worry it would make Brother Boyd Packer unreadable—I always have a really hard time understanding his I’m-91-years-old-and-about-to-die way of talking. Is there a name for that style? I’m glad no one’s emulating that. :) But despite that, his messages are still amazing, and I’m so impressed that he still comes out and delivers them. Even when I disagree with him, I admire his sincerity and honesty, and I love his openness, like describing how fragile and late-developing his personal testimony was.

    As I think of how long I’ve been listening to him, it gives me new-found respect for the female leaders in our church. Apostles have usually been general authorities for a decade or two when they are called, and can expect to speak till the end, till physically they can’t speak anymore. For a young women or relief society or primary presidency member, her call is usually the first time she has ever had the opportunity to address the entire church, and she normally only have that opportunity for about five years, or ten at the longest. They have about as much experience as a newly-called Seventy, and we all know how hit-or-miss the new Seventy talks can be (or is that just me—do most people treat them like hymns and grab some food or get on social media while they’re talking? :) )

    The fact that I remember Sister Elaine Dalton (my favorite recent female leader; she gets a lot of flack, but she had some really amazing talks, and I always felt inspired after listening to her to be a better person) as much as I remember Brother Joseph Worthlin (my favorite recently-deceased apostle—another one who was really hard to understand near the end, but whose messages were always so humbly inspiring) is a huge accomplishment, given how much shorter of a time she served, and how much less often she spoke.

    I wish sometimes that they could serve for longer.

    But I guess I’m kind of getting off-topic. Having been in junior primary recently, I can definitely agree it’s not a primary voice the sisters use. On my mission, I knew a sister who had what I called her “spiritual voice” that she used whenever she said a prayer with investigators—I think it’s more like that: a special voice used to talk about spiritual things. For different people, that voice seems to mean different things, and may sometimes even be an emulation of someone else’s spiritual voice. But what does it, and our commentary on it, really mean?

    Who knows? Maybe it means she—speaker or listener—really cares about what’s being said. And I don’t think that can be a bad thing. I wish someone cared enough about the things I say to comment on the way I say them. :) Hating means you care.

  8. I think your theory is interesting and deserves bringing some data to it. I bet that at least some of what I have classified in my mind as “primary voice” probably is GA voice in higher registers. I bet it isn’t all of it though. It is important to keep in mind that there specifically invited audience goes down to 8 in GWC and only 12 in PH. When men in PH specifically direct their talk to the “aaronic” priesthood it gets an extra special lilt to it as well. Also, having been out of the Utah Valley for awhile I think some of the speech patterning is simply the accent and verbal stylings of the regional accent (and these do tend to be gendered everywhere).

    Certainly there must be a trained cultural linguist out there in Mormondom that could do some analysis for us! It would be fascinating.

  9. rah, that would be David Bowie at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I think he’s done some work on early-mid twentieth century conference recordings.

  10. Ask (the boggernacle) and ye shall receive. :) Maybe you can suggest to him doing an epic guest post on this subject!

  11. I always call it “the spiritual voice” and it’s not unique to women (or even general authorities). I had an elder in my district during my mission who used it and my comp called it the “Let’s be mature” voice and mocked it incessantly. Because it was completely false. If you could ever get the fellow to remove the stick from his rectum, he spoke normally and all was well. But as soon as he remembered that he was supposed to be “serious”, back came the mature voice. (I’m rolling my eyes at it as I type this…)

    During general conference, it gets amped up to 11 and, compared with the stilted teleprompter cadence, it tends to distract me and my wife, but most of the time we grit our teeth and endure. Some speakers are worse than others, though.

    I think your theory is probably valid. It’s probably why I enjoy Elder Holland and President Uchtdorf so much, as their way of speaking nullifies much of the effect (Elder Holland does not employ the “spiritual voice” and President Uchtdorf does use the cadence, but his great German accent makes it much better.) I never thought about it much before, so I appreciate your post, Alison! Good stuff.

  12. I’m with rah on this one. I think what a lot of people consider the primary voice is partly just the way we talk out here in northern Utah. It was brought up that Sister Rosemary Wixom is a big user of primary voice, but I can tell you that is her regular voice. Her husband was my mission president and my companion and I lived in the mission home for a time while our apartment was being fumigated. Her casual voice is not very different from what you hear in General Conference. So while many people may consider this voice to sound insincere, I think this voice is Sister Wixom being as sincere as possible. I have no personal knowledge of any of the other sisters though, so that’s just my two cents.

  13. Marla #5:

    There are some theories out there that it’s our subconscious sexism or hidden insecurities (even if we’re feminist women) that causes some women’s audible voices to be so grating.

    I tend not to give much credence to subconscious anything. I would probably relabel “insecurity” as something like “scarcity.” In other words, when I hear a woman speak in church, I really want her to nail it because I want her to prove that women have something of value to contribute. And when women only have a few shots every year out of the dozens of men, there is a lot riding on each one.

    When a man speaks and it’s not in the upper echelons of awesomeness, well, there will be another guy to come along in about 7 seconds to “repair” the collective reputation of male speakers. :)

    We women already have so much to overcome to even come close to a level playing field, and now we need to worry about how our voices sound, too.

    Public speakers always have to worry about how their voices sound. It’s not a gender issue. I am a public speaker, I’m not exempt just because I have “so much to overcome.” (To be honest, the only place I do not think I’m on a “level playing field” is at church.)

    Rosalynde #6:

    Harping on Primary voice is so 2010; now let’s hassle female GC speakers for vocal fry!

    Except that I’m not harping on women’s voices. I’m actually giving them a cultural pass…and pointing out that if we complain about female style, we are really complaining about a male style we are simply accustomed to.

  14. mirrorrorrim #8:

    For a young women or relief society or primary presidency member, her call is usually the first time she has ever had the opportunity to address the entire church, and she normally only have that opportunity for about five years, or ten at the longest. They have about as much experience as a newly-called Seventy…

    Good point. Have you all heard the old “The Top 10 Ways General Authorities Eat a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup“? The women are seldom around long enough to become caricatures. (Maybe Belle Spafford?)

    On my mission, I knew a sister who had what I called her “spiritual voice” that she used whenever she said a prayer with investigators—I think it’s more like that: a special voice used to talk about spiritual things.

    We had a friend in Boca who was fairly normal otherwise, but every time he gave a talk in church or answered a question in a class, he put on what we called “the general authority voice.” It was so stark, people would literally turn to see who in the heck was speaking.

    Hating means you care.

    Bwahaha. Dying over here…

  15. I never heard the Primary Voice. People would point out examples, and I never “got” it. It absolutely did not register in my brain.

    It is true that women have higher voices and without training they are less comfortable for the ear. When I first arrived in Vietnam-era Germany as a trained military journalist, the first thing they did was take me to the radio station and test me to see if there was any way to turn me into a broadcast journalist. They could not find enough folks with a good voice and the reportorial skills (I had to pass a test about current event knowledge and the capitals of various countries) because it saved a lot of money to use enlisted military folks.

    But I was apparently hopelessly squeaky. When my grandmother was in her 90s, she sounded like a teenager on the phone.

  16. rah #10:

    I bet that at least some of what I have classified in my mind as “primary voice” probably is GA voice in higher registers. I bet it isn’t all of it though.

    I agree. As someone reminded me on Facebook, Neylan McBain’s (fabulous must read) book Women at Church discusses the fact that women use less scriptural references, etc. So there is genearlly a “less academic/scholarly” content to female talks.

    I agree that GWS audience is younger, but I’ve been hearing this complaint since long before Primary kids were included and I’ve heard it about adult sessions as much as the old YW meeting. (And I’ve never heard it leveled at the men who speak in the priesthood session.)

  17. You might be interested in this excellent article by Mary Beard, “The Public Voice of Women” – http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women. The whole thing could almost be a meditation on the “Primary voice” issue. One good excerpt:

    “We find repeated stress throughout ancient literature on the authority of the deep male voice. As one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice. Or as other classical writers insisted, the tone and timbre of women’s speech always threatened to subvert not just the voice of the male orator, but also the social and political stability, the health, of the whole state. So another second-century lecturer and guru, Dio Chrysostom, whose name, significantly, means Dio ‘the Golden Mouth’, asked his audience to imagine a situation where ‘an entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male – child or adult – could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague? I’m sure they would send off to a sanctuary to consult the gods and try to propitiate the divine power with many gifts.’ He wasn’t joking.”

  18. I think it is more of a teleprompter issue, and also an issue of General Conference speakers knowing their talks are being filmed for national TV, recorded, translated, transcribed, timed, etc. Most of us clam-up when we know our words and actions are being filmed, and as a result, our presentations are stiff.

    When General Authorities speak at stake conferences, the way they speak is totally different, like night and day. They speak in a relaxed, spontaneous, conversational style. They don’t read a prepared talk, but rather speak from memory, maybe occasionally referring to a few notes.

  19. During conference sessions, David Bowie comments at BCC under the name loathingthethewordpressloginsystem. I don’t recall him weighing in on “primary voice,” but he’s probably got some insight (based on actual data) on all this if we can get his attention.

  20. . . . imagine a situation where ‘an entire community was struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male – child or adult – could say anything in a manly way.

    Isn’t that pretty much what Pixar did with the talking dogs in “Up”?

  21. Thank you for stating what I have always thought. Sherri Dew was always one female voice that I could listen to and not feel I was being talked to like a small child.

  22. “Hahaha, I love your spelled-out impression of Brother Nelson—it’s spot-on!”

    mirrorrorrim, forgot to tell you, the funny thing is that I just googled “Russell Nelson,” clicked on “videos,” picked a random result, moved the cursor to the middle of a talk, and typed in what he said. Doesn’t really matter where you go in his talks, the cadence is there. :)

  23. Hedgehog, very interesting article. I lived in England for a bit when Thatcher was the prime minister. I admire many things about her.

    Did you find her “shrill” in the clip? I did not at all, but rather well-spoken and gracious. Either way, I suspect there is also a UK element of class involved. How one speaks is an enormous indicator of where one sits in the social hierarchy

    I can put on the queen’s English and can manage cockney, but I do a mean broad Yorkshire, even if it doesn’t get people to curtsey for me. :)

  24. Alison, that makes it even funnier.

    For Sister Rosemary Wixom in particular, I should point out that it’s much more than the way she speaks: it’s her entire delivery. I still remember a couple Women’s Sessions ago (can that title be applied retroactively?) when she had all the different age groups stand up and sing different verses of “Teach Me to Walk in the Light.” It was touching, but it also seemed very Primary-ish to me, and a little awkward. But I’m not big on singing in front of strangers to begin with, so maybe it was less awkward than I remember it being.

    But I think Scott makes a great point—the couple of times I have heard General Authorities speak in Stake Conference, it was completely different. Brother Russell Nelson is usually one of the speakers I don’t enjoy listening to, but when I heard him in Stake Conference a year or so ago, it was an entirely different experience, and I really, really enjoyed it. I thought that would carry over to his General Conference addresses, but so far that hasn’t at all been the case—in October he was as hard to listen to for me as ever. I bet that’s also true for the female leaders, maybe even more so, since they tend to get about half as much time to give their talks than the apostles do, and probably feel they have less leeway on what they can say.

  25. Sister Kristen Oaks (2nd wife of Elder Oaks) has a very “primary” voice and she sounds like a teenager with a heavy Utah accent. It’s interesting to hear.

    The GA’s all get public speaking/elocution lessons before being put in front of millions of people in General Conference. They get help and practice using teleprompters, speaking clearly and slowly, not using hand gestures, etc. I heard through the rumor mill that there is an LDS-led consulting company based in DC that provides speech coaching to GAs in SLC as well as political figures in DC. (Rumor only, it might need to be filed behind Steve Martin’s baptismal story.)

    I wonder though if by now, people who rise to GA levels haven’t already perfected the elocution style simply by parroting GA’s and practicing in local/stake wards. Have you noticed that many local leaders have conference voice down pat?

  26. mirrorrorrim, only very slightly related, a few years ago Elder Bednar spoke in our stake conference in Eagle Mountain. I don’t remember how it all happened, but he called a deacon up to the pulpit and asked him something. In response the boy started out saying something in which he incorporated the word “crap.” He was then duly chastised for his foul language.

    I think I’m in trouble.

  27. Alison, #27, To answer your question, that first clip she didn’t sound as shrill as the lecturer I referred to, but still fairly high pitch, but with a moderating mellow quality to it, at least in the recording.
    But golly, those received pronunciation BBC accents. Broadcasting is much more diverse in voice and accent these days. I grew up listening to BBC radio in the 70s though, and derived much of my accent from there. No wonder the kids at school accused me of being posh. I wasn’t at all. But I certainly must have sounded it!

  28. I knew there was something about you, Hedgehog. In here putting on airs. (Or, in this case, maybe it’s heirs?)

    And to almost completely threadjack my own post, what is it about British drama? When I first moved to England, I thought I’d die of TV boredom. In my desperation I gave in and began watching, only to fall in love. Let’s just admit that the Brits train their actors much better on average. My daughter (one of my performing kids) and I watch every British series we can find. If you have a similar addiction and can recommend favorites, please do!

  29. My parents didn’t get a TV until I was 17, and we don’t have one, so I’m not much help from a current perspective. In the past, I enjoyed the BBC’s Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson in the leading role and also C4 Poirot series with David Suchet. There was a great series based on Ellis Peter’s Bro Cadfael books with Derek Jacobi, and the BBC adaptations of Lord Peter Wimsey with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. And a pre-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe in the BBC production of David Copperfield with Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood.
    I do love radio drama though. My favourite is Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, which is up to series 6 now, with 4 episodes in each. Various legal series, detective series. The classic book adaptations are really, really well done. Plus lots of stand alone plays.

  30. P.S. The first time I read your comment, I interpreted it as “My parents didn’t get a VT until I was 17…” (as in visiting teacher) and I couldn’t figure out what that was referring to. heh

  31. as a speech teacher- when you are nervous many things happen to your voice, your gestures and you presentation including the raising of your voice and the stiff manner . Experience will correct most of these issues. Personally listening to women at general conference I am more bothered by the smiley face and tone throughout even when presenting serious material and telling sad stories. I didn’t realize that the condescending tone was one of the most common speech patterns of the Utah area until we moved here two years ago. The majority of the sisters speaking at general conference will be from this area until families are asked to relocated for the sister’s calling too. Second point -one of the first lessons taught to teachers is to lower and soften your voice. children do not respond well to that sing-song high tone Primary voice either.

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