Every experienced sales manager has a trick or two when it comes to hiring the best candidate for an open sales position. After a candidate passes the initial resume screening process, one manager might check out the applicant’s shoes. Another might pay close attention to how well the individual responds to an unexpected question. Here’s a new one: does the candidate talk in a melodic way?

Scientists at USC found an unexpected link between melodic speech and empathy:

But actually, being able to change intonation in speech – as in upspeak – may be a sign of superior empathy? A new study in the journal Public Library of Science ONE finds that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech.

Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. This study shows for the first time that prosody – the music of speech – also works on a mirror-like system.

And it turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain. [Emphasis added. From USC News – Does Music in Speech Equal Empathy in Heart? by Carl Marziali.]

Most people do tend to use prosody, particularly when talking to babies and pets who may understand the emotion more than the words. But, we vary in how much we use prosody in normal conversation. The researchers found that the subjects who used prosody most often in everyday speech showed the highest levels of activity in Broca’s area and also scored high on empathy measures.

It’s unlikely most of us would hire a salesperson who spoke in a flat monotone, but this work suggests that an individual with a melodic manner of speaking would likely be better able to identify with customers’ emotions. (Note that what the researchers measured wasn’t musical skill or ability to carry a tune, but rather the melodic inflections used in speech.)

The study (Common Premotor Regions for the Perception and Production of Prosody and Correlations with Empathy and Prosodic Ability) was conducted by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC College, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

Image via Shutterstock

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