At age 50, I qualified for my AARP Card, entitling me to senior citizen discounts. Years later, I earned my Curmudgeon Card. This license allows us old folks to complain about even the smallest, most meaningless things. Because of our longevity and years of experience, there is usually a kernel of truth in our rants and rages. Take, for example, upspeak.
In the English language, there are two ways of asking a question. You can reverse the subject and the verb. “It will rain,” becomes, “Will it rain?” Or, you can just raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence, stating, “It will rain?” The pitch goes down at the end of a factual statement, but when we are unsure, when we question the weather report, we say, “It will rain?” and the intonation rises. That is upspeak.
The use of this rising pitch in declarative sentences has become common, especially among young women. Upspeak probably originated with the valley-girl dialect of the 1980s. At that time, this teen-speak was, like, totally mocked, you know, for being grody and, duh, like, bogus? Today, the prevalence of upspeak has forced a begrudging acceptance, but the negative inference remains.
Statements ending with upspeak make everything a question. That undercuts credibility. It sounds as if the speaker is not sure of herself or lacks confidence.
Some defend upspeak as just a female way of trying not to sound bossy. Women have been raised to always be nice, not pushy, and this is just a new form of politeness. To me, it sounds like a new form of subservience.
I’ve heard media interviews where women with doctorates discuss their groundbreaking research using upspeak. On the radio, I once heard a female pediatrician discussing her years of research on the effects of lead in children’s drinking water. She had important conclusions relevant to the situation in Flint, Michigan, yet she ended each sentence so it sounded like a question. Her statistics sounded frightening, but was she doubting her own conclusions?
It is probably just my age, or my curmudgeon status, but as an old-time feminist, I wanted to celebrate this woman’s accomplishments. She deserved to be respected for her knowledge, yet her speech patterns undercut her credibility.
In a previous career, I used to coach women on business communication skills. Certainly, at times we taught polite, non-confrontational ways to be heard in a meeting without sounding bossy or too threatening to the men. But usually women needed to be more assertive to get their ideas heard. Upspeak undermines that assertiveness. It weakens the message.
It is still true that when someone hears a female voice in a hospital, they think of a nurse, not a physician; in a business setting, they think of the assistant, not the CEO. It is not fair, but it is reality. Don’t let upspeak reinforce the stereotype.
Right or wrong, we acknowledge many things other than words affect communication. Poor grammar and mispronunciation affect people’s credibility. A British accent increases the perception of intelligence, a Southern drawl can have the opposite effect. Talking too loudly causes people to dislike you and thus your message. Speak too softly, and people don’t listen. We all laugh at the robotic speech of some artificial intelligence programs. Speech characteristics are important.
For some reason, there are people who want to defend upspeak. The New York Times has argued that we shouldn’t criticize linguistic trendsetters. NPR has accused upspeak-haters of policing young women’s voices. Others have gone further, saying it is anti-feminist to criticize how women speak. They say young women have the right to speak in their own voice.
Of course, everyone has that right. But there are many norms that are resistant to change. We wear different clothes to work than to a night of partying. We use a different vocabulary talking to a prospective employer than to our friends. If you choose to sound like a reality star/valley girl, you are free to do so. Just make sure it is a deliberate decision, not just a bad habit.
The substance of what anyone says will always be more important than how it is said, but please, don’t let the style of your language distract from your message. Upspeak distracts.