It's A Girl! The New iPhone Speaks

Play associated audio

Why is Siri female?

Siri is the name of a new talking virtual assistant feature on the latest iPhone that can tell you when you have an appointment, where to find a Thai restaurant and what the pollen count will be.

I have friends who have the phone and love to ask Siri, "What's the meaning of life?" She has an answer, which is impressive. Maybe it takes a circuit board to recognize the special quality of life. But frankly, her answer sounds a little robotic.

Siri, which is an acronym for the California company that developed her, speaks in an electronically warm, friendly, female voice. So do most on-board navigations systems, voicemail prompts, directory assistance greetings and Julie, the voice of Amtrak's automated reservation system.

Why are the voices that emanate from our machines so often female?

Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University told CNN.com that humans develop an affinity for female voices that begins when we overhear our mothers speaking while we wait in their wombs.

We hear our birth mothers coo, "I love you," over our heads, so a woman's voice conveys comfort and security. We might hear a man's voice somewhere in the background asking, "Have you seen my shoes? Do we have any of that peanut fudge ripple ice cream left? Hey, where are the spoons?"

Researchers say that while a man's voice can sound "authoritative" — although Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and, for that matter, Nina Totenberg, sound pretty authoritative — a woman's voice may be taken as more congenial and cooperative.

Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, says, "I wouldn't automatically claim any sexism," and suggests that companies are probably only choosing the voices that focus groups and market surveys like most. "It's casting," she says.

Professor Nass at Stanford also points out that male, mechanized voices have played the heavy ever since the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968. HAL speaks soothingly, but locks astronauts out of their spaceship. Professor Nass says, "A lot of tech companies stayed away from the male voice because of HAL."

In other words: typecasting. Because of HAL, a whole generation of male mechanical voices lost out on work.

But I don't want to begin any inclusion campaigns for more male mechanical voices. I prefer to think that the proliferation of female robotic voices reflects some of the progress actual women have won in the struggle for equality. Women have achieved so much in so many ways, you can hear it everywhere.

By the way: You've got mail. I think. Maybe.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Book Review: 'Kinder Than Solitude'

Ellah Allfrey reviews Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li.
NPR

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow: A Guide To Speedy Vegetables

Impatient gardeners don't have to wait for summer to harvest salad fixings. A surprising variety of crops will bring homegrown produce to your table in as little as three weeks.
WAMU 88.5

To Replace Rep. Jim Moran, Virginia Democrats Raking In Big Bucks

The race has opened the door to an epic primary season that had 13 Democrats formally announcing their candidacy.
NPR

When Parents Are The Ones Too Distracted By Devices

Parents often complain that smartphones keep their kids distracted from conversation. What happens when it's the other way around, when kids can't get their smartphone-glued parents' attention?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.