Australian Karen

That voice on your GPS might belong to Karen Jacobsen — popularly known as Australian Karen, reports Bruce Feiler in the New York Times (6/27/10). The odds are pretty good because Karen’s voice turns up on GPS devices made by Garmin, Tom Tom and others. Her voice-over philosophy is simple: "When you’re in the car, alone at night, on a dark road, and you don’t know where you’re going, this voice, even though it’s coming from a machine, becomes a human being you trust … It becomes a member of the family," she says.

For some men, that voice becomes all that and something more. There are even a couple of websites (gpspassion and pdastreet) whose forums reveal a certain male infatuation not only with Australian Karen, but also American Jill. Karen acknowledges "a few snarky comments" but is more concerned with trying to turn her navigatrix following into a singing and inspirational speaking career. Her message: "You can ‘recalculate’ anytime in life." She also suggests that her GPS work helps people’s marriages because she takes "the focus off blaming one person or the other."

The early GPS systems featured mostly male voices. "When the key dimension is competence, the male voice is better," says Clifford I. Nass, a communications professor. "When the key dimension is likability, the female voice is better." As confidence in GPS technology increased, the likability became more important than competence. Female voices have also been traditionally preferred in airplane navigation devices and warning systems because they stood out from among the male crewmembers and men tend to pay more attention to them, although pilots commonly refer to the voice as "Bitching Betty."

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