The Downside of Uptalk

I have read several articles lately which state that there is a war on how women speak.  The premise is this: the goal of criticizing female vocal habits is to silence women.  Yes, women have been fighting to be heard for millennia.  But that’s not the topic I wish to address here.

I’d like to tackle the notion presented in these articles that uptalk (continuing rise) and creaky voice (glottal fry) are acceptable vocal practices in professional communication. While it’s true that both of these habits are typically used by young women, I’ve worked with numerous men who pepper their language with them as well.

The whole point of verbal communication is to be heard and understood by the people we are trying to reach.  Speaking is a generous act.  We offer ourselves — our passions, our ideas, our perceptions — to others, through our breath, resonance, and the physical act of making language.  We literally touch one another with our sound waves.  If we wish to connect, we must do everything we can to make it happen.

In spoken American English, various inflections inform our listeners of our thought structure. These inflections correspond roughly to punctuation.  For example, when the voice drops from a high to a low pitch on a “.”, it feels like the final note of a song. This downward inflection, or “end stop”, lets the listener know that you have completed your thought. The brain can then process your idea.

Upward inflections fall into two categories. One kind let us know that you have asked a question and would like an answer.  The other kind, the continuing rise, indicates that you are speaking a series of thoughts. We hang onto your ideas without fully processing them, waiting for the “end stop” to let us know that we are free to think about what you said.

When the speaker repetitively uses uptalk, the linguistic information becomes confused.  I have heard both men and women say “good morning?” at the beginning of a presentation as if it were a question.  If you actually meant “good morning”, you would use a downward inflection.  I have heard both men and women introduce themselves with a question mark following their names, and then another one after stating the topic of their talk.  What does this do to their credibility?

Then the talk begins.  With a continuing rise at the end of each phrase, one thought merges into another with no pause for processing.  I’m going to write the next paragraph in this way (/ indicates where uptalk is inserted if you wish to read it out loud):

I want to demonstrate how the continuing rise/ keeps us from understanding/ and so I’ll to try/ to write a paragraph/ to show how hard/ it is to comprehend/ and so I’ll imitate/ how the spoken word/ would be represented on paper/ so that you can get/ how difficult it is/ to process my thoughts/ and so like I’m trying/ to complete my thought/ so that I can finish/ this paragraph/ and so it’s like I can’t remember/ where I began/ and so I don’t know how/ I’m going to finish/ and so I run on and on/ and I don’t even know/ what my first words were/ 

One article I read derided the fact that we need to speak in shorter sentences.  It’s true.  We do.  When we eliminate uptalk, we automatically speak more succinctly. We lose the impulse to connect our thoughts with versions of “and so”.  Not only can the listener remember your content, but you can as well.  This is how that paragraph might read using the “end stop” (| indicates where the downward inflection is inserted for you to read out loud):

I want to demonstrate how eliminating the continuing rise helps us with understanding|  I’ll imitate how the short sentence speaking style would be represented on paper|   I want you to get how easy it is to process my thoughts|  I’m going to finish this paragraph now|

In order to make glottal fry, you must hold back your air flow. If you make a small, tense space in the back of your mouth, the tiny stream of air creates a clacking sound in the glottis. There is nothing harmful about making this sound, but its impact on communication is huge.

First, think about sound waves.  Although we many not perceive that we are being touched by the voices around us, we are.  Air passing the vocal folds creates a sound wave, a tangible vibration.  That sound wave is amplified in the bones of the body (primarily the sternum) and the bones of the face and skull.  That amplified sound wave travels through time and space and reaches the ear drums of your listeners, as well as their bones and skin.  The fullest resonances are created by a steady, supported flow of air and an open mouth cavity.  If we really intend to reach the people we are talking to, we let the vibration flow freely.  If we don’t, we hold it back.

Second, think about mirror neurons.  When the mirror neurons in our brains are activated, we unconsciously mimic the physical behaviors of the people in front us.  If you are not breathing fully and freely, your listeners will be holding their breath as well.  They may not be aware of how your limited breathing is affecting them, but they will feel the discomfort.  Your audience might dismiss your ideas, not because of their value, but simply because they are delivered in an uncomfortable physical way.

Every dialect has a different way of making resonance.  Each one uses rhythm, melody and sound patterns in a unique way. Creaky voice and uptalk might be considered as characteristics of an emerging dialect of American English.  If this is happening, then they should be honored as a way of speaking, just as all dialects should be honored.

However, in order to be understood by their listeners, speakers often code-switch between dialects.  We sound one way with our parents and another with our children.  We talk differently with our peers than we do professionally.  This is a practical and powerful tool that lets our vocal expression be fully appreciated by the people we wish to reach.

By all means, use uptalk and a creaky voice if all of your friends do.  By all means, use these patterns if your boss talks this way.  But if you wish to have an impact on a larger scale, or if your organization values a different mode of communication, code switch.  Breath fully, resonate, and land your points on your listeners.  You will be received in a completely new way, a way that has little to do with your gender and a lot to do with your wish to be heard.  Do everything you can to insure that people are touched, moved, and changed by what you have to say.