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Missionary Voice: Real or Fake?

For many students at BYU, missionaries are commonly seen, talked about, and become the topic of discussion at church on Sunday. Do missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak differently than other people their age?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Sister Missionaries in Hong Kong

Many people find that they would talk differently to a baby at home than to their boss at work. It is normal to switch registers: the way we speak, our word choice, and formality in different situations. This is often done unconsciously, but people can hear it when other people talk and know it exists even if they don’t know what to call it. People can switch between casual, formal, or academic registers, but there are many more registers, including an informal register such as baby talk.

The choice of register someone uses can tell you a lot about a person and may cause instant judgment, whether intended or not. Depending on the register people use, others someone may think they are belittling, too casual, extremely nice, or overwhelmingly smart. Many missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may feel the pressure of this judgment because they want to come across to other people as an approachable and humble follower of God. But does this pressure actually affect their register or the way they portray themselves in speech? Do missionaries express their identity as a missionary in speech, just as they do in dress and behavior?

Throughout The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community, including BYU, people tend to think missionaries have a specific register indicating they are a missionary, but does their missionary identity actually manifest itself in their speech? BYU Linguistics professors Dr. Stanley and Dr. Smemoe worked together with former BYU undergraduate student Josh Stevenson to research this “Missionary Voice” and the ideas surrounding what makes a missionary voice register. Is there really a missionary register? And if so, what distinguishes a missionary register from different registers? In their article “The Missionary Voice: Perceptions of an emerging register,” Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson explore what people associate with missionary voice, whether people can distinguish a missionary’s voice, and what linguistic features make up missionary voice.1


To adequately research the “missionary voice,” Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson focused on three main questions. First, do people think this missionary voice or register exists? Second, if they said it did exist, can they distinguish a missionary from a university student their age? And finally, if people think missionary voice exists, what are the linguistics features that are associated with missionary voice?

Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson created a questionnaire that asked people’s opinions about missionary voice and if they thought it existed. The feedback they received showed that 66% of the questioned people said that missionary voice did exist. The survey also included a question about specific features that people thought missionary voice had. Most people they interviewed described missionary voice with descriptions that fit in five main categories: generally calm (calm, nice, pleasant, soft), compassionate (friendly, respectful, empathetic), lively (confident, enthusiastic), authoritative (elevated, full of power), and more spiritual (faithful, humble, reverent). Some people also regarded missionary voice as neutral or negative, with negative perceptions possibly originating from people’s negative perceptions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People’s experiences with missionaries and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can give bias to these perceptions—whether positive, neutral, or negative—but for the most part, missionaries are thought of to have the features in the five categories. Someone described them as “everything is like a ray of sunshine.”1

With this feedback, Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson confirmed that people did think there was a missionary voice, but they decided to test if they could really pick out who was a missionary by just listening to voices. To do this, they gathered audio from missionaries and university students that were about ordinary conversation topics. They then had people guess if it was a missionary or a student. The data indicated that people couldn’t tell the difference between a missionary or a student, but they agreed on what they thought was missionary voice even if it was a student. Taking this newfound knowledge, Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson decided to focus on what people thought missionary voice was by looking at the audio clips that most people thought came from missionaries. Looking at the data, they found that uptalk, smiley voice (or talking while smiling), frequent pauses, and slow and deliberate speech were all qualities that people thought missionary voice should have.

BYU photo by Nate Edwards

As mentioned, one quality of missionary voice is pausing. An example of this from a student that was incorrectly voted to be a missionary said, “uh and that happened, and she was so helpful. Um, at one point, somebody sent me a text.” The longer pausing in the statement led people to think this student was a missionary. Another example that showed the opposing position was with a student that was correctly voted to be a student. He said, “play a different position, I’d say no. I’ll play the position I want to.” The words, intonation, and defiance created a clear “no” statement which seemed to go against the participants’ idea of a missionary voice because people think ‘no’ answers go against the compassion expected in missionary voice. This led them to correctly conclude that he was a student.


There are many exceptions to missionary voice within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church communities. For better or for worse, missionary voice is a register that people seem to perceive in missionaries. This may result in certain expectations in missionaries that are wrong. For example, missionaries might have mastered the missionary voice yet might still be mastering the characteristics associated with its features. Because of this great expectation significance, it might be useful for missionaries to understand these expectations and know how to best use this new register. Although it is helpful to be aware of this register, we are still learning about this new register that affects how people see missionaries and how missionaries act in certain situations. There are still may unknowns, including how the people missionaries are seeking to teach hear this “missionary voice” and whether what they hear makes a difference in their receptiveness to the missionaries’ message.

Missionaries’ overall speech also includes more than just a specific register. Additional studies could focus on the overall facial expressions, posture, and gesture along with the register in these different situations. With the research Dr. Stanley, Dr. Smemoe, and Josh Stevenson did, we can see the perceptions associated with missionary voice including the expectation that missionaries should be responsible, compassionate, and an overall representative of Jesus Christ. While researching more about the missionary voice, we come to discover more ways that registers tell us more about what is being perceived in a situation or about a person because of how they are talking.

Read the Original Article:

1 Stanley, Joseph A., Stevenson, Josh, Baker-Smemoe, Wendy. 2024. “The Missionary Voice: Perceptions of an emerging register.” Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 9(1).

Picture of BYU Students taken by Nate Edwards and found on the BYU picture website.
Picture of Missionaries found on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s Media Library here.