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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.