I was asked to pen a few lines for a Guardian journalist on why I thought Siri was male in the U.S. and female in the UK. My quote was taken a tad out of context and so offended some folk who either didn’t know I was a technology columnist who makes a living out of irony and flip, or that I’m the most egregious, line-forming mumbler in British history. So here’s my contribution in its entirety. Make of it what you will.
I don’t know the reason why they chose male and female voices that way: it’s probably something prosaic about licensing or they didn’t have a Female British voice handy, or someone thought it would be good to try it that way first to see what happened.
But there’s plenty of literature to suggest that the gender of a voice is important to the listener. Men, according to researchers from Kansas State University, tend to take more financial risk if they are given a video briefing voiced over by a woman; the opposite is also true. (Conclusions from this are undermined when it’s added that men are willing to take even more risks if there’s no voice-over at all, which possibly means the less information they’re given, the more comfortable they feel about charging off into the unknown. This might sound familiar.)
Indeed, the problem with most research on the subject is that it tends to be as confusing as that. A paper from academics at the University of Plymouth found that “the sex of a speaker has no effect on judgements of perceived urgency” but did say that “female voices do however appear to have an advantage in taht they can portray a greater range of urgencies beacuse of their usually higher pitch and pitch range.”
We do know this: male German drivers don’t like getting navigational instructions delivered in a female voices. There’s also something called presbycusis—basically hearing loss, where older people find it easier to hear men’s voices than women’s, and can’t tell the difference between high pitched sounds like s or th.
But the bottom line is that Apple may have erred. Brits are notoriously picky about accents: class and regional, and, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh, can’t stand being told what to do by an American female voice. So far so good. But they also found that people don’t like what the researchers called a Male Southern British English voice either. Conclusion: until Siri can do regional female voices, it’s probably not going to be a huge success in the UK.
My tuppennies’ worth: Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative and, well, not American female.