Is upspeak in the workplace just for Valley Girls?

I'm Bruna Martinuzzi? Let me start again... I'm Bruna Martinuzzi.

Written by Bruna Martinuzzi
Published 23 May 2019
Is upspeak in the workplace just for Valley Girls?

Spoken out loud, the first way I introduced myself is an example of "upspeak." Simply put, upspeak (or uptalk) is a way of speaking in which every sentence ends upward - that is, with a rising tone, as if we are asking a question rather than making a statement.

Why should we be concerned about this topic? Well, for one thing, uptalk is supposedly on the rise, especially among young people. It's often associated with women and many consider uptalk an unequivocally bad thing.

But are the concerns justified? And how could upspeak affect your career? Let's explore some of these issues.

Who uses upspeak?

Is it mostly used by women? Is it a Southern California phenomenon (sometimes referred to as "Valley Girl" speak)? Not so fast.

Although it's often associated with younger women, a University of California study (led by linguist Amanda Ritchart) confirms that men also use uptalk. From my own experience living in Vancouver, Canada, I encounter many highly intelligent women and men using upspeak frequently.

Ritchart claims that "several other studies investigating uptalk in different dialects of English have noted the use of uptalk by males as well, though women generally use it more often."

Indeed, uptalk is not just a Southern California phenomenon. In his book, Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising Intonation, Paul Warren shows that uptalk has an extremely wide geographic spread across the English speaking world. To the British ear, it might be reminiscent of dialects in the Midlands (particularly Birmingham). And it will perhaps be most familiar to Australians and New Zealanders, where an upward inflection is common.

Negative perceptions of upspeak

There's no shortage of opinions on upspeak. It's often disparaged in the media and by communication coaches, academics, linguists, and psychologists, to name just a few of the naysayers. It was even a segment on the CBS program 60 Minutes as far back as 1994!

An example, among many, is John Baldoni, an internationally recognized leadership educator who claims that upspeak is becoming more prevalent, particularly among young women. According to Baldoni, "Women who speak in this manner, may be perceived as less than serious, and in extreme examples, as less intelligent." 

A survey by publishing company Pearson (involving 700 men and women in managerial roles) was fairly damning. According to the survey:
  • 85% of respondents view uptalk as a sign of a person's insecurity.
  • 70% find uptalk irritating.
  • 57% think that uptalk can damage professional credibility and hinder career prospects.

Is the negativity justified?

But many people have spoken up in defense of upspeak. Some have suggested that women may use upspeak to ''hold the floor'' and avoid being interrupted, signaling that there is more to come.

New York journalist S.I. Rosenbaum, for example, tweets that upspeak is not a sign of uncertainty or a lack of assertiveness, but "a demand that the listener[s] demonstrate their engagement."  Rosenbaum adds that this makes sense "in a culture of people who are ignored and talked over. 

Others use it to check that the person they're talking to is following or is agreeing with what they say, and acts as an invitation to jump in if they don't agree or didn't understand."

Professionals using upspeak

Upspeak can be a great way to temper strong viewpoints or to appear collaborative. A young technology professional said to me that she uses upspeak because she doesn't want to appear too aggressive or pushy in stating her views.

A supervisor giving feedback to an employee may use upspeak to avoid appearing aggressive. In such situations, upspeak makes people feel safe, as long as the speaker doesn't overuse it or bury the message.

However, in some contexts upspeak can come across as condescending. A doctor, for example, might use upspeak when speaking to a patient, or a teacher, when speaking to a student. I've witnessed both male and female professionals in engineering and I.T. who used upspeak when explaining complex issues to non-expert staff.

A study by Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that in certain business and academic meetings conducted in English, the most senior people in the room used upspeak up to seven times more frequently than the subordinates. In this case, the senior figure used it to pressure participants to respond and establish common ground.

Is this a generational issue?

Some scholars suggest that adverse reactions to uptalk may be generational. A senior technology professional told me that upspeak used to annoy him but no longer does. Similarly, a top university professor in science told me that he found upspeak irritating at first but that he has learned to get used to it.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford University, was initially shocked to hear an announcer on the radio use uptalk. Her students, however, thought it was authoritative. ''And that was when I knew that I had a problem... There's been a change, and those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old!''

It's safe to say that many young professionals don't even notice when others upspeak. They may not even be aware that they upspeak themselves. A young technology executive said to me "I'm more interested in what people have to say than how they say it".

Upspeak in the workplace

Clearly, there is a diverse array of opinions and ideas on the subject. And, as we've seen, people use upspeak in many ways, from sounding less aggressive to dumbing down or even signifying superiority. So how can you apply this to your working life?

If you are hiring

If you oversee recruiting and you struggle with upspeak, it may be time to re-evaluate your negative perceptions.

Upspeak is widespread among millennials entering the workforce. These bright, tech-savvy, young employees bring talents and skills highly needed in the workplace of today. Underestimating these applicants because of the way they talk can hurt your company's chances of success in a highly competitive business environment.

It's also worth mentioning that marking down applicants because of uptalk may be grounds for discrimination. This is the view expressed in an article from Canadian Business.

If you are a young professional

If you are concerned that uptalk may be an obstacle in your life, you might find that it's best to "err on the side of caution and, on occasion, try to avoid upspeak.

I have started thinking of voice"- says Journalist Jessica Grose- "almost as the way I think about outfits. If I'm going for a job interview, I'll wear a different outfit than when I'm out with my friends."   
Here are a few tips to help you to minimize your upspeak:
  • Raise your self-awareness. Self-awareness precedes self-management. Here are a few questions to ask yourself: when I make a statement, does it sound like a question? Do I do this frequently? In what context am I likely to use uptalk? Are there specific groups of people that I use uptalk with more often?
  • Ask for help. A trusted colleague can tell you if you use upspeak excessively. You can also ask that person to record you when you present at meetings.
  • Boost your self-confidence. If you think that you use uptalk because you feel insecure, first of all make sure that you do know what you're talking about, then work on improving your confidence. For example, one of my clients said that she uses uptalk in meetings when she is stressed because she has to speak "off the cuff." Her self-doubts manifest themselves in an excessive use of uptalk.
  • Practice alternatives. Before going into an important meeting or giving a presentation, practice making declarative statements over and over. Some speech therapists recommend practicing speaking sentences out loud, both ways: once with uptalk, and once with intonation going down. Others advise that speaking slower and in a more neutral tone could help. Doing this allows you to hear the difference and help to normalize a different way of speaking.

The future of upspeak

Hearing upspeak in today's workplaces may soon become innocuous, especially in industries that attract young people. As more and more bright, uptalking millennials continue to take positions of authority in the workforce, uptalk may no longer be a career derailer. In fact, it may even become the norm.

Stanford's Penelope Eckert puts it best: "Language and society change, and a lot of these patterns that older people stigmatize sound perfectly natural and OK to younger people." Never forget, the workforce of the future is young people.

Do you use uptalk? Or do you work with someone who uptalks and it drives you crazy? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

About the author

Bruna Martinuzzi

Bruna Martinuzzi

Freelance Writer
Bruna is a coach, trainer and author, and has been contributing articles and blogs since 2014. Her background incorporates 30 years of experience in management and executive leadership positions. She has helped thousands of individuals improve their presentation skills and become more effective communicators.

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