Stephen Miller sounds like a dick.
A person could mean this in the ad hominem sense, surely. He is one of the architects behind the xenophobic and exceedingly dickish Muslim ban that was recently blocked by a federal appeals court. As a high school student, he wrote dick letters to the editor that complained about receiving class communications in English and Spanish. In college, he was a dick about racism and sexism and gave his column in the student newspaper the very dick name, “Miller Time.”
But Miller also sounds like a dick in a more direct sense. He has the voice of someone who is a dick.
You can hear Miller sounding like a dick in this interview he did on Sunday with George Stephanopoulos:
Watching Miller, a stranger, I was struck by the familiarity of his dick voice. I know this dick, I thought.
Curious if there is such a thing as a quantifiable dick voice, I reached out to John West, the head of speech coaching at New York Speech Coaching, to get some perspective. West works with CEOs, hedge fund managers, politicians, and actors to help them become more effective speakers. He also, presumably, helps them to not sound like dicks.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Can we start with Stephen Miller’s interview with George Stephanopoulos? It didn’t seem to go over very well in some circles, but how would you describe his speaking style?
What we can do with any individual is try to break down some of the facets that go into their physiological persona, the way that they use their voice inflection, register, and body to determine why we have the perception of them that we do. So at the risk of overgeneralizing, one thing we can talk about is his voice itself.
Stephen Miller likes to use a lower register. So, number one, the pitch he’s going for is at the bottom, even a little bit below, where he can comfortably speak. He’s also clenching his tongue a little bit while he speaks. This is a common, however unconscious, tactic by men to sound more masculine and authoritative. It’s just to suggest that extra bit of, Here’s what I have to say and welcome to it.
So from a pitch and [vocal] register, we also perhaps would not find him guilty of being overly vital or terribly compelling in terms of his variation. He is rather monotonous.
In terms of his physicality, he is, for the most part, quite still. Again, I think that is his effort to deliver his message with conviction. And as far as his interrupting goes, this, similarly, is a way to convey strength in that sense.
After that interview, I saw a lot of people describe Miller as “that guy” from college and other versions of this general sentiment. But can that actually be an effective way to communicate?
Let’s be clear on this: What he is not, in his delivery, is balanced. The more balanced you are in your delivery—your voice, your body language—the more people you’re going to appeal to. The more you commit to one extreme or another on a spectrum, while one group of people may commit back to you, the more people you will risk alienating.
In the case of this particular gentleman, we have a situation where large swaths will feel that this is not a guy I would enjoy spending time with. It feels like he’s talking down to me, it feels like he’s being overly pedantic and, indeed, condescending.
What he does though is, speaking of “that guy” in college we all rolled our eyes at, when you don’t have perhaps content on your side—without being overtly political here!—what one has to do then is compensate for that.
And that’s a keyword I’d like to highlight with you: What we don’t like about that, if we can remove ourselves from the political content for a moment, is generally the fact that it seems like this person is trying to compensate. We see a person who is trying too hard. That’s not an attractive quality, when we see someone pushing and trying too hard.
We talk about vocal fry and upspeak as these ways of critiquing women’s speech and voices, but is “asshole voice” a differently gendered version of this?
And if we were at all concerned about what will we can call this type, thank you for putting that to rest. I think we have landed on this now and I look forward to you making this the next big thing in vocal pop culture.
Yes, asshole speak, sure. I think that, again, a big part of what we espouse and try to dissect as speech professionals is where things fall on the gamut. As soon as we try to reduce things to black and white we do get ourselves locked into our biases.
So in the case of asshole voice, we are, as a people, as individuals at times in our lives, attracted to assholes. There is something compelling however obnoxious, however we may roll our eyes at them.
When we talk about what makes someone sound like that—[the kind of person] who we wish would stop talking or would just leave the party—it’s when we feel that they are treating us as less than. It goes back to compensation. If this person values their own messaging more than others—with inflection, with condescension in intonation—suggests superiority.
That’s what we, as the knowing listener, find to be asshole-y.
And let me say, for the record, that this style of speaking is not limited to those who, again, have a certain political viewpoint.
Al Gore also sounds like an asshole.
It is nonpartisan.
How would you describe asshole voice? I would also call this dick voice.
The first thing that comes to mind, before we even touch voice, would be observable physical exasperation. If you sigh. If you shake your head back and forth. If you roll your eyes.
The second thing is the condescending intonation pattern. That kind of inflection suggests a waste of time. Condescending inflection pattern which is that high to low: OK, here we go.
The third thing an asshole does is interrupt, in general. Any time we interrupt, we are already scoring asshole points. The best thing we can do to try to mitigate is to do it respectfully and appropriately. Then, the flatlining, or monotonous speech, which is closer to what Miller does.
On the flip side, using excessive pitch variation—like a preschool teacher talking to a child—is also an asshole thing to do. This is what people often refer to as mansplaining, which is equally asshole.
The more balanced we are, the less of an asshole we are.
Donald Trump’s political rise was due at least in part to what people saw as his being relatable. But he also does all of the things you described above: He interrupts, uses bombast to conceal the fact that he doesn’t have the facts on his side. And yet I don’t think of Trump as having dick voice.
I’ve long tried to explain to clients the extent to which commitment can be more important than competence. The fact that we’ve had someone, in Trump, display that so effectively—it’s not to say that I encourage clients to bullshit or spin, it’s just an example of how important commitment is in communication. It’s an oft-neglected facet of public speaking.
The problem with this trickle-down of people trying to follow the Trump school of commitment is that those guys are not Trump. There is only one Trump—a guy who has just the right balance that speaks to a certain demographic of people, and even beyond that to individuals in countless demographics.
Trump’s unwavering commitment coupled with his direct messaging and unwavering self-assurance—that is so rare to find in a person that when you try to replicate that, if you are Sean Spicer or Stephen Miller, you’re probably not going to be as good at it.
Other people don’t have that same skill set. And even for those people who find many of Trump’s words and points of view vile, there’s something almost likable and imminently watchable about Trump, whereas these other guys are just assholes without the charisma.