What’s Up with Uptalk

Kylie Flynn she/her

Now and in the past, women are criticized for the way they speak in professional environments. Particularly, their use of “uptalk,” or the upward inflection of the voice, that makes the end of statements sound like questions. It’s also referred to as high rising intonation, rising inflection, upspeak, or even the “Valley Girl” speech pattern. One study found that 85% of supervisors thought uptalk would negatively influence employees’ promotion opportunities. But why is uptalk, a mannerism used almost twice as often by women, considered unprofessional? There are countless claims by critics that it sounds infantile, annoying, and most repeatedly: insecure. What’s interesting about these claims (most of which are made by powerful men), is that they are partially true, but less so for women. In a study on the uptalk of Jeopardy contestants, they found that men were more likely to use uptalk when insecure in their response. Men who answered incorrectly spoke with a rising inflection 57% of the time, compared to 27% in men who answered correctly, and 48% in all responses by women. Women who were more successful on the show also used uptalk more, while the opposite was true for men. 

As we can see here, uptalk in women is a sign of assurance, yet it’s treated as the opposite. This is likely because men in power are projecting; assuming that their use of uptalk is the same as someone else’s. In fact, linguists have worked to discover the opposing speech tendencies throughout genders and found that women are most aware of “correct” or “prestigious” pronunciation and speech patterns because they’re the pioneers of language in most communities. Does this mean uptalk is the “right” way to speak? Though an employer or professor may have told you differently, uptalk isn’t right or wrong, but it can be a useful communication tool if you make it one. A positive facet of rising inflections is that they can act as a tone-signifier or emphasis to encourage active listening. It’s no wonder then that women and gender minorities, who are consistently interrupted and ignored in male-dominated workplaces, use uptalk to indicate they have more to say. While uptalk tends to be gendered in professional settings, it shouldn’t be, and underneath the surface it isn’t. Everybody’s voice raises here and there, and the best thing we can do is take it as a sign to listen. 



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