What Is “Upspeak,” and Why Should You Care?
Let’s start with something so obvious that you may not have thought about it: When you want to ask a question (and you’re speaking American English), your voice rises at the end of what you’re saying, like this:
But sometimes, people’s voices rise at the end of a thought when no question is intended, as in the second part of this next example:
That’s called upspeak.
Upspeak — or “high rising terminal” (HRT) — refers to the pitch of someone’s voice rising at the end of a statement that’s not a question.
And its nickname, “Valley Girl talk,” gives a clue as to why this habit can be such a problem for young women speakers, even though some linguists argue that upspeak is not so much a female phenomenon as a millenial one.
So upspeak might be as much an age-related as a gender-related habit:
…it appears to be more common among young speakers (Wikipedia, High Rising Terminal).
And it might be the way English is going, with women doing more of it because women are language innovators:
…in linguistic change from below, women use… innovative forms more than men do. (Wikipedia, High Rising Terminal).
But whether or not those things are true, you can be certain of one thing, which is that…
Women Get Judged More for Upspeak than Men
When young women use upspeak, it’s thought to indicate ditziness, lack of intelligence, lack of seriousness, and/or lack of self-confidence.
When young men use it, upspeak may go unnoticed — or, if it is noticed, it’s not as likely to disqualify the speaker in other people’s eyes because men are judged on their future “potential,” while women are judged on current performance and required to prove themselves over and over. (Harvard Business Review’s 2013 “Women in the Workplace: A Research Round-Up” is just one place you can verify this.)
Is that discrepancy not fair?
Totally sexist bullshit?
But if you’re a young woman who’s trying to get established or get ahead in today’s workplace, it’s also a reality that you shouldn’t ignore.
The question is: What are you going to do about it?
My vote is that you lose the upspeak when you’re on the job.
Good Public Speaking Is About Choice
Good communicators are flexible.
They can speak loudly or softly… rapidly or slowly… and with more or less emphasis, depending on the situation they find themselves in.
This ability to respond flexibly to conditions on the ground gives them confidence and control; and you should, IMHO, strive for the same flexible control when it comes to upspeak.
This means that you should have the choice of either using it (say, with your friends) or not using it (say, with your boss’s boss, or when you present at a national conference).
It isn’t hard to reach that goal, but it does require some effort and focus.
How to Lose Upspeak, If You Choose To
The first step to losing upspeak — or any other public speaking habit that you think might be holding you back — is to notice every time you do it.
Enlist a friend or trusted colleague to point out every instance of the behavior you’re trying to change. (They can punch you in the arm every time they hear upspeak, or signal you with more subtlety!)
- Every time you notice a backslide, practice, practice, practice moving forward.
- You’ll quickly be able to avoid upspeak for short periods of time, when you concentrate.
- And if you stay with this effort, you’ll soon find that it’s gone, without you having to think about it.
And don’t worry about missing your old habit — you can always revert to upspeak when you decide to, once you’ve learned to turn it on and off!