Finding Your Voice Helps Strengthen Relationships,
Says Wellesley Researcher Sally Theran

October 3, 2008

Arlie Corday, Public Affairs

WELLESLEY, Mass. — Why do people have difficulty speaking their minds? Psychologist Sally Theran, who teaches at Wellesley College, researches this problem, called “level of voice” – a way of gauging how comfortable people are in expressing themselves in relationships, either among friends or with parent and teachers.

Sally Theran

FINDING YOUR VOICE: How can you maintain healthy relationships? The solution, says researcher Sally Theran, is bringing issues out into the open.

Her work, “Predictors of Level of Voice in Adolescent Girls: Ethnicity, Attachment and Gender Role Socialization,” published online in October in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, looks at an ethnically diverse group of 108 14-year-old girls to find out what gives some young women the strength to be open and honest – and why others keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, resulting in lower “levels of voice.”

“Lower level of voice means someone speaks with a less authentic voice,” said Theran. “In interactions with others, they may not say, ‘Look, we have a problem,’ since they are worried about threatening a relationship. Actually negotiating a conflict indicates a higher level of voice.”

Some researchers have said lack of voice is a feminine characteristic. But the results from Theran’s participants, who rated themselves on scales of highly feminine and highly masculine traits, was not consistent with that theory.

“Being more feminine is not a predictor of lower levels of voice,” Theran said. “Being feminine doesn’t mean you are not able to speak your mind.”

Theran, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley since 2004, received a B.A. from Bates College in 1994. She completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Michigan State University in 2004.

Girls like those in Theran’s study, just entering puberty, face a challenging set of circumstances. Research shows they are at risk for lower self-esteem, depression and poor body image. At the same time, they are maturing cognitively and discovering new opportunities to grow and express themselves. The struggle between fitting in and finding oneself can be difficult to manage.

So how can you remain authentic in relationships? The solution, Theran said, is bringing these issues out into the open.

“You socialize girls from an early age to talk about their feelings openly and honestly, and you continue to do that,” she said. “For example, you can find a nice way to say, ‘You hurt my feelings,’ rather than to allow a problem to fester.”

Interestingly, two-thirds of Theran’s subjects were from ethnic minorities, allowing her to focus on traditionally less-studied groups. She found that in a school setting, for example, African-American girls had a higher level of voice than Caucasian girls. Moreover, being part of the ethnic majority also contributes to a higher level of voice.

Level of voice, Theran found, is also affected by the attachment quality of a girl’s relationship with her parents. A girl feels freer to express herself with authority figures when she has a solid relationship with mom and dad. It’s important for girls to value themselves, Theran said, and to feel free to express themselves honestly.

“Otherwise, their relationships become less authentic, and everyone suffers because the relationship suffers,” she said.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.