Can we see you?

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As transcribers, we spend our days with other people talking through us, like mediums! Our writing isn’t of the automatic kind, the stuff of the world of fake ghosts and séances; our job is to make sense of the very real spoken word and the world researchers investigate. ‘Surely we make sense when we speak?!’ you may cry in protest. Of course you do, but since roughly 80 per cent of our work is ‘written’ in intelligent verbatim, we do have to think about what you say and that means we need to work out where you stopped one thought and began another even if there’s a string of ands, buts and erms in between. And when you are looking for a word, we’re willing you on and sometimes second guessing you.

We end up being able to do this because McGowan transcribers all have at least six months’ experience and most of us have been doing it for many more years than that. In actual fact after a few years – in some cases in terms of the McGowan team, over a decade of working in the digital transcription industry – the sound of the spoken word, how verbal utterances are structured, as opposed to how sentences are written, must become part of the fabric of our brains? I’m pretty certain that after a few years of transcription, most of us have listened to more conversations than the biggest Radio 4 addict or professor of linguistics. So what do we make of it then?

It can be fascinating to ponder why someone chose one word rather than another, why they hesitated before saying something and it’s interesting to hear the range of ways of saying something across regions, generations and nationalities which can often be so different to how you would yourself express the same thought. The skill of the researcher asking the questions is also a thing you can admire with words carefully chosen to steer and guide a respondent in seemingly natural ways, but we know there’s art in that!

So yes, words, words, words but then recentlyI was reading about how we may be able to tell what someone looks like through their voice.  ‘Yeah, right,’ I thought and then the penny dropped; I do visualise the people I listen to! The research into this comes from Harriet Smith from Nottingham Trent University. Her hypothesis for her PhD is that you can tell a lot about how someone looks from their voice, as in age, height, body size and so on. (Well, it’s far more complicated than that judging by the academic papers she has contributed to but the media had fun with the idea.)

I’d go so far as to say that when I’m transcribing I get faces in my mind! This isn’t so crazy because how someone talks I think must affect the way the muscles in their face are shaped? So a laconic person, I see their eyes as quite relaxed; someone quite intense, more focused. Mouths and jaws too, so a slow talking person might appear in my imagination as having a relaxed face, and the opposite for the more intense person, and then bits in between. A reflective person, I imagine their face moving and forming expressions; a direct answerer, something a bit more passive in terms of their face?

I’ve put a question mark there because we can never know without being a bit weird and turning to Google Images… Having thought about all this however, I figured I’d ask my colleagues if they do this visualising thing, with the proviso that if they didn’t I would seek help! But yes, they do! So there weall are typing away and all picturing the people we hear. This is of no help to Harriet and her work because, well, frankly, yes, we often get to know ages and so on in the context of questions asked, so get lots of clues, but maybe what my fellow transcribers said when I asked about all this is far beyond what Harriet could test for:

I immediately visualise everybody that I’m listening to and create a very detailed visual technicolour context and environment for them all, even if they’re sitting around a conference phone in an office meeting room.

Will we be recruited by the CIA for careers in remote viewing as explored by Jon Ronsonas in his Men Who Stare at Goats? Rather than finding her visualisation abilities being supernatural she quite sensibly put it all down to sociology and psychology that has enabled her, and us (read on!) to be able to pick up all these clues about people and places.

Since all I have is a voice of course I will be applying all my subconscious/unconscious/conscious prejudices and assumptions to creating that image but however correct or not it is, I find it incredibly useful to write from that image.

I find that comment really interesting that she calls it ‘writing from that image’ because as she also says:’I think it might be partly because a lot of the way I communicate is by looking at people’s faces and body language to understand what they say.’ As has been noted by one of our clients: ‘Compared to other services I’ve used in the past, your transcripts … are much better in terms of capturing conversational flow and little non-word aspects of conversations,’ so maybe our visualising people helps with conveying not just the words but the rhythms, intentions and tone of what is said. Another colleague took this a bit further:

You do get a sense that you can tell a lot from a voice and especially when linking them to their professional role or whoever they are in life, I do find myself adding ‘layers’ in terms of their personality. I very often wander off into the realms of complete daydream imagining myself doing the same sort of work.I think this kind of daydreaming is almost essential in our work because it helps you immerse yourself in the task at hand and rather than just counting down the minutes until you’ve finished an audio file; for a little while you slip into the world of the folk you are listening to.

And as our other colleague said, this world can often be visualised too it seems: ‘I always try and imagine the people talking, the room they’re in, what’s going on behind them,’ or even as another transcriber described:

If it’s a long-term project and the same respondent pops up say a year later, it’s nice to imagine them still in their home but perhaps with a new sofa or photos or depending on the time of year, with some Christmas cards around or the windows wide open with the sun streaming in (or rain battering against them!)

We don’t just transcribe the words of strangers. We work on many projects with long-term clients and while we may never meet them, as another on the McGowan team commented, ‘Certainly with moderators/researchers who pop up again and again, I feel I know them really quite well and have a very strong image of what they look like.’ She wasn’t alone in this:

I tried to imagine for years what a certain moderator looked like, just from listening to his voice for so long, and then finally got to see him on a TV programme purely by chance and he looked pretty similar to how I had imagined (down to weight, build, height, etcetera)!

One for Harriet?!Another quirk uncovered during my own research into all this seems just like people can have doppelgangers in the way they look, there is also the voice doppelganger thing:

I recently transcribed a whole series of interviews where the moderator sounded enough like Griff Rhys Jones for me to imagine he’d be making a witty quip at any minute.

I’ve had this myself. Trying to shift the picture of maybe a hugely non ‘PC’ famous comedic person out of your head while listening to their voice doppelganger talk professionally and cogently and sensibly about a really sensitive social research topic means making some big mind flips!

There is though a very serious potential outcome of Harriet’s research. Could a witness to or victim of a crime be able to provide clues to a person’s identity even if they didn’t see them but only heard their voice? Linguistics is used in criminal cases but usually in terms of what is written or said or how words are conveyed. So if Harriet can show that things like age, weight, height and so on can be gleaned subconsciously through listening to a voice, could this have application in legal situations? One of my colleagues, having been prompted to read more about it all, was intrigued:

I particularly like the idea that there is a forensic element to it, especially since when I was little I wanted to be a supersleuth and perhaps there’s still a chance for me yet! I’ve always been interested also in the importance of language choice in the field of psychoanalysis and so all this is making me excited at the idea that such notions and concepts actually have a link with the day-to-day work that I do and the use of transcripts – never thought about it really but now you’ve got my brain fizzing!

Having unlocked a Pandora’s box of stuff and before we all rushed off to join the FBI leaving Joe with no staff, thankfully there was one of us, as there should be on every team, who is essential; the one who brings you all back on track.

Whilst I can honestly say that I do add faces to voices … it’s more how clearly people speak that I’m bothered about.

Good point when as a McGowan transcriptionist you are working through 90 minutes of audio a day. Maybe therefore it’s our experience and our honed skills at keenly listening and unpicking what is said that puts us up there as the best in the industry. As one long-standing client noted: ‘I have often been blown away by the quality of what you have been able to do, particularly when the recording quality or the interview environment has been challenging.’ So the excellence of our work is not all down to our overactive imaginations? I’m thinking that being very experienced and skilled at the job in hand, of transferring words heard into words on the page, means our then having the ‘brain space’ to picture the people we hear. Certainly imagining them clearly does no harm and perhaps adds that special something to the standard of the transcripts McGowan Transcriptions is renowned for and routinely delivers.

Written by Maz Cleary