Good news for the socially awkward: While scientists still struggle to find a way to reverse a bad first impression, there is a new method to help people get better at saying hello — or at least be cognizant of how they say it.

Researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Aix-Marseille University, and ENS Paris have established an experimental method that can offer visualizations for how people judge others when hearing them say a word. By using the word “hello” (or “bonjour,” as the study was conducted in France), researchers were able to find the ideal intonation for coming across as either determined or trustworthy. The results were published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The linguistic and social judgments we make when hearing speech are based on intonation,” the researchers said. “Just as we have a mental image of what an apple looks like — round, green or red, with a stem, etc. — we form mental representations of others’ personalities according to the acoustic qualities of their voices.”

The methodology of using intonation to determine social judgments is already used by researchers for clinical purposes, but for the first time ever, researchers have a way to visualize these mental representations.

The team at CNRS was able to do this by developing CLEESE, a computer program for voice manipulations. The software works by using a recording of a single word and generating thousands of other pronunciations of said word. By analyzing participants’ responses to hearing each variation of the word, researchers could distinguish which intonation was considered most sincere.

Method used to model mental representations of vocal intonation.
CLEESE's mental representations of vocal intonation

So how can people deliver that perfect hello? According to scientists, the person must say “hello” in a descending pitch in order to sound determined. By putting emphasis on the second syllable, the word conveys an image of authority to anyone who hears it. On the other hand, if a person wants to inspire trust in others, they should end their greeting on a higher note, letting the second syllable rise quickly in pitch.

The scientists behind CLEESE have made the software available online in hopes others will use it in their own quests for better communication. The software could be used to answer a variety of questions related to how intonation is judged, with full sentences and different languages presenting an array of variables.

Researchers said the variable of gender made no difference in their study, and the same code for a great first impression applied no matter the sex of the listener or the speaker. This could be different in languages outside of French, however, given English speakers’ long history of equating women’s “vocal fry” to diminutive traits, like frailty and incompetence.

CLEESE is now online and free to use, so anyone can experiment with the software. With a little scientific research, the perfect first impression is within vocal range.