What Does How You Talk Have to Do With How You Get Ahead?

Why competent men and women employ a vocal tic, and what it means

Some people? They’ll present facts as if they’re asking a question? It’s a linguistic phenomenon known as uptalk, also referred to as upspeak. It’s often associated with Disney Channel-loving tweens and Valley girls and dismissed as a marker of immaturity and airheadedness. But many people use it, even those with influence and power.

“I first noticed the trend among my very smart undergraduate female students,” says Thomas Linneman, a sociology professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. “They’d get up in front of the class and say, ‘These are my results? Here’s what I found?’ It was out of control.” Deeply annoyed, Linneman launched an uptalk study. To observe reasonably intelligent speakers within a controlled environment, he watched 100 episodes of Jeopardy! and documented 300 contestants’ demographic information, as well as their use of flat vs. rising intonation. (Granted, the choice of Jeopardy! was somewhat odd, given that the long-running quiz show requires contestants to pose answers in question form, but Linneman argues that most do so using flat intonation.) In total, he found that contestants answered 37 percent of the 5,473 given questions using upspeak. In terms of gender, the findings, published in 2013, exposed an unexpected correlation: Successful women were more likely to use uptalk than less successful women, whereas the reverse was true for men.

Linneman postulates that female champs deploy upspeak to appear less dominant, hence more likable. “Studies show that if a woman comes across as too assertive, too confident, or too successful, then she’s regarded as unfeminine,” he explains. “So a woman might say, ‘OK, I’m beating the pants off these guys, but I don’t want to come across the wrong way. One way I can repair this is to sound uncertain.’ ” Men were more than twice as likely to use uptalk when answering correctly after a woman answered incorrectly, as opposed to following a man who answered incorrectly—seemingly “a weird kind of chivalry,” Linneman says.

Other experts say the vocal style may have more nuanced purposes. Some speakers—especially women—deploy seemingly random question marks to hold the floor and fend off interruptions. Powerful people of both genders use it to coerce their underlings and build consensus. Penelope Eckert, a linguist at Stanford University, says one of her students observed Jamba Juice customers and found that fathers of undergraduates scored as the biggest uptalkers. “They were being polite and trying to mitigate their male authoritativeness,” she says.

The use of uptalk dates back at least to the late 19th century, to northern England, northern Ireland, and Scotland, according to Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. No one knows exactly how or when the speech pattern caught on in America, but researchers speculate that it was imported by immigrants and disseminated by socially active young women, who often pioneer vocal trends.

The lilt is still widely considered a signifier of girlish insecurity and ditziness. Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at William & Mary, offers a possible reason for this. “When certain linguistic traits are tied to women … they often will be assigned a negative attribute without any actual evidence,” she says. A closer look at her colleague’s Jeopardy! study, which relies on a relatively small, mostly white sample population, indicates that upspeak stereotypes may have more to do with perception than intent. The six black women in the study rarely used uptalk, a finding that generally resonates with black speech patterns, Charity Hudley says. “But I wouldn’t say we’re automatically less likely to try and be polite; it just manifests in a different way.” For African Americans, she adds, upspeak isn’t necessarily even viewed as a sign of weakness: “It’s perceived as a sign of whiteness.”

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