In an article for The Atlantic last week, former teacher Jessica Lahey talked about her experience with middle-school girls using uptalk and “baby talk,” and how its use amongst her students worries her, and how she has confronted it. In one example:
After class one day, I finally decided to speak to a sixth grade student who was a frequent babytalk and upspeak user. We sat down in my office during snack time, and, over our herbal tea and cookies, we talked about why she uses such a high-pitched voice at some times and not others… She talked about the pressures she’d faced, living in the shadow of a superstar older sibling, her tense relationship with her mother, and her worries about living up to her parents’ expectations. That conversation turned into a three-year-long effort to identify when and why she shifts into baby voice. Once we’d done that, we worked together to get out of that doubting voice and down into a definitive, confident chest voice rooted in her core, a voice worthy of the weighty insights she shared in class.
I understand this concern; there are already so many social and cultural obstacles facing young girls and women on the road to confident adulthood -- hearing them purposely speak in ways that might seem to belie massive insecurities only adds to the worry and frustration.
Uptalk -- also known as “upspeak” -- happens when a speaker ends their sentences on a rising intonation, as if asking a question, even when the sentence is a declarative one. Uptalk has drawn a lot of public criticism in recent years as being a uniquely feminine problem, one that is indicative of a lack of confidence in one’s words and a desperate need for approval. It’s also widely assumed to be deliterious to women’s ability to be taken seriously.
And yet, I can’t honestly say I have a problem with it.
By the sixth grade, my friends and I had devised our own language, one that made liberal use of uptalk, baby talk, and several bizarre accents we had drawn from our own strange preadolescent hivemind (and also, from “In Living Color”). When I think about it from the perspective of my teachers, we must have been unbearably irritating. One friend, we’ll call her Margaret, was especially prolific with her inventions, which included not only new pronounciations and intonations of familiar words, but new words altogether. In the social hell of middle school, our little clique was bound by our shared language of strange sounds and inside jokes, an unbreakable code with no obvious solution.
It wasn’t just us, though. Many other kids I knew had odd words, phrasings, and pronunciations. For years I marveled at the way all the boys in my school used the same onomatiopoeic sound for crashes and explosions -- it was not “SMASH” or “BOOM” or “BLAM,” but always the curious “DOOOOGE.” All the boys said “doooge,” and none of the girls did, to the extent that at one point, while playing video games at a neighbor boy’s house and hearing him exclaim the word for probably the fifth time that day, I actually wondered if there was a meeting at some point in which all the boys my age were instructed in the use of “doooge.” It wasn’t a standard comic-book word. Indeed, it wasn’t a word I had ever heard or seen anywhere in my life except from my boy peers. Even then I thought there had to be some shared source where they learned it. How else would they all know how to use it?
Language is often mysterious, because we all learn to use it without a conscious and critical understanding of the social mechanisms whirring away under the surface. Uptalk in particular has taken on a bit of an ominious quality in recent years, especially as it is employed by young girls and women, and in public discourse it has evolved into a harbinger of low self-esteem, probably because of its negative cultural association with privileged young white girls and “valleyspeak” (like, you know?).
Girls who use uptalk are assumed to do so because they are uncertain in their words, and in their meaning -- as in The Atlantic article linked above, their intonation is immediately read as betraying a deep insecurity, and possibly even psychological problems. The story of the babytalking student’s difficult home life is assumed to be the source of the student’s percevied timidity, of which her speech patterns are a perceived symptom.
And certainly, many girls at all ages are deeply insecure, but I think identifying uptalk as a universal symptom is putting the personal-baggage-carrying cart well before the speech-communication horse.
The truth is, uptalk is not a uniquely -- or even a primarily -- feminine behavior, nor does it necessarily suggest uncertainty or a lack of conviction. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is significant evidence that uptalk is a nationwide phenomenon in the US*, frequently used by people in leadership positions, and often by men. As early as 1985, linguist David Brazil argued that “what he called ‘rise tones’ can be used to ‘assert dominance and control’ by holding the floor, by exerting pressure on the hearer to respond, or by reminding the hearer(s) of common ground.”
Or, as University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman has put it:
...[S]ome studies suggest that uptalk has been used by the more powerful person in hierarchical exchanges, such as those between employer and employee, teacher and student, or doctor and patient. An office assistant, for example, would not be likely to say to the boss: “Are you following me on this? Do you understand what I’m saying?” In such instances, uptalk, rather than suggesting insecurity, may in fact signal confidence, paternalism, coercion or faux conviviality.
This holds with my own experience. I use uptalk frequently when I am in a position of speaking from authority, like when I give talks at colleges, and I have often wondered at the clash between the perception of this practice -- as signaling insecurity -- versus my use of it, as a person who is pretty damned definitive and unshakable in my opinions and statements. Even as I have tried to shed the habit, I find myself reverting back to uptalk for two reasons, both of which are mentioned in Brazil’s theory above.
First, I use it as a means of consensus-building, and demonstrating that I am open to conversation on whatever (usually controversial) ideas I’m putting forth. Uptalk invites inquiry and criticism -- especially when I am speaking on a subject that I have strong opinions about -- whereas simple declarative statements can immediately shut down any efforts at discussion. Think about it: if a person flatly says, “People who ride bicycles have weird heads,” the speaker does not come across as inviting conversation on this idea. If, however, they say, “I think people who ride bicycles have weird heads?” the hearer is more likely to understand this as welcoming a dissenting opinion and opening the floor to other perspectives.
Secondly, I use uptalk as a way of saying, “I expect you to respond to this.” I’ve never thought of this as “exerting pressure” but having given it more consideration, that is absolutely what I am doing. By offering my points as questions, I am all but demanding that the listener “answer” them, and exploiting powerful social conditioning that it is rude to leave a pointed question ignored, especially when it comes from someone in a position of authority.
Although I doubt we share company on much else, even former President George W. Bush peppered his speeches during the Iraq War with uptalk (here’s a super nerdy analysis of one such speech in December of 2005). Now, we could argue all day long that GWB was, in fact, deeply insecure, but it’s just as likely that he employed uptalk during this period as an effort to build both social and political unity in wartime. Because, frankly, it works.
Given that uptalk is popularly -- if inaccurately -- thought to be a feminine habit, it’s just possible that we assume uptalk signals insecurity and weakness because we associate these things with women, and not because the people who use it (who are not uniformly women) are always uncertain or insecure. This is what we call confirmation bias.
In a 2012 study of uptalk and gender as evidenced on the question-heavy game show "Jeopardy!," sociologist Tom Linneman argued that women and men both use uptalk, but in different ways. Men’s uptalk would seem to signal uncertainty of their answers, as uptalked responses were more likely to be wrong. Women’s uptalk, however, seemed to indicate the opposite:
Linneman measured success in two ways: He compared challengers to returning champions, and he tracked how far ahead or behind contestants were when they responded. Linneman found that, “The more successful a man is on the show, the less he uses uptalk. The opposite is true for women… the more successful a woman is on the show, the more she uses uptalk.” Linneman suspects that this is “because women continue to feel they must apologize for their success.”
Certainly that’s one way to look at it. But the idea that women's use of uptalk is to "apologize" for being right is itself colored by gender socialization. It is just as possible that women use uptalk more often when their opinions are definitive and they are confident in their correctness because they are attempting to maintain a level ground socially, by not displaying their authority and confidence in a way that might put them in a superior position over their colleagues or peers.
Although we’ve all known individual exceptions to this, women as a group are culturally conditioned to build consensus and harmony, even when they are absolutely certain they are right, and they are dissuaded from asserting their authority in a way that creates divisions by just bulldozing their ideas through with zero discussion. Women are more likely to be hyperconscious of the idea that everyone wants to feel heard, even if their concerns or criticisms are not put to use.
But refusing to peacock around with one’s right answers is not the same thing as apologizing for one’s success -- although gender-based confirmation bias will seem to suggest otherwise, because male socialization is erroneously assumed to be the correct or natural human behavior, and women’s forms of communication that differ from the normative male model are therefore suspect, and must be suggestive of “insecurity.” Therefore, women who do not assert their rightness forcefully (as a man ostensibly would) must be apologizing for it, and that must be a worrisome problem.
The truth is, if we’re hunting for examples of women being weak and submissive and sorry, we will probably find them. If women who use uptalk are being ignored and dismissed, the problem is not with uptalk itself -- the problem is with a culture that socializes women to prioritize community and relationships over individual achievement and success, and then punishes them for absorbing those ideas and putting them into practice. The crusade against uptalk as a feminine habit (which it is not) that belies a lack of assertiveness in women (which it does not) starts to look more like an effort at policing women’s confidence, and policing how they express that confidence in social interactions.
Today when I look back on my sixth grade life, on our shared secret world of made-up words, ridiculous accents and babytalk, I don’t see girls in terrible danger of never being confident individuals capable of speaking with authority. I see kids experimenting with language and self-expression and social interaction at an age when all of these things are fluid and frightening and wholly new -- an age when they should be exploring communication to its very edges, even when those explorations result in childhood habits that are briefly annoying or strange to adults who are well entrenched in what is normal and acceptable and preferred.
Offering guidance in the name of developing strong-minded girls -- as in Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic piece quoted above -- is an admirable effort, and a necessary one. But in condemning uptalk as a significant problem for young women, we are simply reproducing the inaccurate notion that uptalk is always a passive, feminine behavior signaling insecurity, and ignoring the bigger picture that uptalk is a functional part of human communication with a useful purpose.
I mean. You know?
* And this isn’t even touching the fact that different accents may produce uptalk simply because that is the regional norm. A study of intonation patterns in Belfast, for example, found that a staggering 95% of statements demonstrated uptalk-like attributes.