‘Annoying’ Upspeak, or Policing Women’s Voices?

Women in Radio

I got my first lesson in vocal inflection from my college theatre director: “Chris, your voice is going up at the end of each sentence. It makes you sound younger than the character you’re playing. Make your voice go down to sound older.”

I had never noticed that about my voice, but I soon realized I was indeed a devotee of what has now become known as upspeak, as exemplified  by Taylor Mali, as he calls out this quality among his high school students:

“In case you hadn’t realized,” Mali declares, “it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about… Invisible question marks and parenthetical ya know’s?… have been attaching themselves to the end of our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions.”

Having worked to shed this quality in my own voice, I had largely forgotten about the issue. But NPR’s Fresh Air brought me back to the topic this week – with the added realization that the only people who still seem to get called out on this feature are, like, ya know, women.

Fresh Air interviewed journalist Jessica Grose, who has regularly received criticisms about her “upspeak.” Once having had an older, male interviewee tell her she “sounded like his granddaughter,” Grose began to feel that her voice was actually hurting her career.

Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert and speech pathologist Susan Sankin also weighed in, discussing how more and more women are seeking vocal coaching for this “problem.” This led the panelists to explore upspeak – and its crackling opposite, vocal fry – to ask who gets to decide why certain vocal qualities are “problems” in the first place.

For Eckert, the lopsided nature of the complaints makes it clear what’s really going on:

“It makes me really angry. And it makes me angry, first of all, because the biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men…. And it’s considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity … and by the same token… it’s clear that in some people’s voices [upspeak] has really become a style, but it has been around forever, and people use it stylistically in a variety of ways – both men and women.”

But women, the panelists pointed out, still receive the overwhelming brunt of vocal criticism as noted by this (brilliant) auto-response message created by the 99% Invisible for such complaints:

Women's Voice Complaint Reply

So what’s going on here? People complain that upspeak makes someone sound youthful, inexperienced, or insecure. But when it comes down to it, there is no actual link between these qualities and the vocal feature. People who use upspeak is no more or less likely to know what they’re talking about than those who don’t.

“But they sound so insecure!” Well, this is also worth examining: On the listeners’ end, there’s no natural, human pre-programming that makes us hear upturned tones as indicative of anything in particular. What’s really going on is that we’re socialized to assign meanings to otherwise meaningless vocal qualities

But these meanings serve a purpose: We rarely complain about the vocal qualities of someone we know, respect, and fully agree with. Think about it, do the “annoying voice” complaints ever come from someone saying, “You know, I really agree with everything Person X had to say and have respected her work for a long time – but yuck, that voice!”

Instead, vocal critiques are leveled at those we want a reason not to hear. Why go through the work of addressing the actual argument, or an influential role we’re uncomfortable with someone occupying, when we can de facto delegitimize anything that comes out of their mouths? What better way to subtly police the ideas of an entire group than by undermining the only medium through which their messages can be expressed?

It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: Since our society projects certain qualities onto women, whatever vocal features women employ will be used as confirming evidence for these stereotypes. Speak too high and you’re shrill; speak too low and you’re being seductive. There’s no way to win because it actually has nothing to do with the speaker’s voice in the first place, and everything do do with the listener.

We don’t have to censor the words of women when we can undermine the very sound of their voices, just like we can shrug off voices from other minoritized communities by characterizing particular dialectical features as “uneducated” based on a false understanding of how language works. Or, as Charles Debose, put it:

“The superior position of the dominant group is justified by its “proper” speech. Similarly the subordinate position of marginalized groups is legitimated by the characterization of their language in such pejorative terms as poor, slovenly, broken, bastardized, or corrupt.” (Debose 2007)

Or, we may add, “annoying.”

Of course, if someone wants to get a bit of vocal coaching, for whatever reason, they should feel free to sharpen this powerful tool as they see fit. But we need to realize that the assumptions we make about someone based on their vocal qualities are our problem, not theirs. If we can only take someone seriously if they speak a certain way – particularly if the issue is not sounding prototypically male enough – it’s probably us, not the speakers, who need the coaching.

As Eckert put it, “You only get change by not allowing it to be a problem to you… So the question is, do you knuckle under [the pressure] or do you try to make the world change a little bit?”

Pay attention to the message, not the medium. Those who seem to speak with knowledge and authority often have neither, so we can’t be tricked into believing messages based more on how a speaker sounds than what is actually said. Ears are great, but brains are better. Time to use ours when it comes to judging each other’s voices.

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9 thoughts on “‘Annoying’ Upspeak, or Policing Women’s Voices?

  1. Charlie says:

    Hmm, I have mixed feelings about this. I do think upspeak is a problem in general and it does make the person speaking sound like they are not sure about what they are talking about. I do see both men and women do it on a regular basis. I agree that people should not be judged on the qualities of their voice that they cannot control, but especially in a professional role, there are parts of the way people speak that they should be in control over. Just like there is a formal way of writing, there is a formal way of speaking as well. In a casual setting, people can speak however they feel like speaking, but if they’re in a job interview or a radio host, I expect them to speak “properly.” That means not using upspeak, not saying “um” or “like” too much, properly pronouncing words (for example “ask” not “axs”), etc. If someone naturally has a high voice or low voice, that’s fine, and they shouldn’t be punished for that. On the other hand, not everyone has a voice that is pleasing to listen to on the radio. In those cases, if people do want to be radio hosts, perhaps they should work on making their voice sound more pleasant.

    • Good points Charlie – maintaining professionalism in vocal qualities is absolutely important, so I’ve been going back and forth a lot on this myself lately.

      I think the issue is more about the disproportionate number of these complaints being geared toward women, even when there’s surely just as much vocal unprofessionalism among men. That makes it seem like is something quite different is going on here.

      • Charlie says:

        If we’re going to criticize people for upspeak, we should be equal opportunity criticizers. I know I am. It doesn’t matter if a woman or a man is doing it, I find it equally annoying 🙂

  2. Hi Chris – I agree with you more than Charlie. We should change our culture so that features of women’s voices, including upspeak, are accepted with authority in the same way as men’s voices. There is no inherent reason why women should be the ones to change, or any minority group either. As educators, it’s our job to help others who are not from the dominant culture have the tools of power, such as voice inflection or dominantly accepted pronunciation of words like “ask,” to use if they so choose, but it’s also our job to challenge why these assumptions are there in the first place.

    Second, language is used for a purpose – upspeak can be used to request a sign that the listener is still listening or to suggest that other points of view may exist. Someone who is attending to the listener and entertaining other points of view is someone I would like to speak with – therefore, downspeak would be the undesirable feature. This is something I learned from my Boston students – their “nonstandard” speech patterns conveyed messages that would be absent with “standard” speech. I believe our job is to help them become fluent in both, not to erase any “flaws.”

    I published a similar post on Linked-In: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/who-should-change-men-womens-communication-patterns-power-callis?trk=prof-post

    Thank you for bringing up this topic!

    • Thanks Laura – I’ve been wrestling a lot with the “tools of power” vs. “challenging why these assumptions are there” balance as an educator as well, and I think your comments phrase it perfectly. Loved your Linkedin Post as well! Do you blog or post anywhere other than LinkedIn? If not, I’ll keep watching for stuff there!

    • Charlie says:

      Laura, to me, the assumptions are there because those are the rules of the language. (I actually don’t know who makes the rules. If we don’t like the way the rules are made, perhaps that’s another problem altogether.) If people are misusing a language, in general I don’t think it’s appropriate to change the rules to accommodate that. (I know there are cases when we do this, though.)

      The most common scenarios I hear about upspeak working against someone is at a job interview or at a lecture. If someone knows what they’re talking about, they should speak in a way that conveys confidence. Of course there are some things where there may be other valid views or opinions on the matter, and maybe it’s okay to use upspeak in those situations, but more often than not it is used for no particular reason that I can see other than being a habit that the person picked up.

  3. Mary Beth says:

    Hello Chris,
    My two cents: I don’t know why anyone is bothered by vocal fry. I’ve watched youtube videos about it and I just don’t understand the fuss. Upspeak, OTOH, is extremely annoying to me, and in my experience, young women do it more than anyone else. And it makes them sound like they don’t know what they are talking about. Who is teaching them to talk this way? When someone peppers their sentences with upspeak, I have zero confidence in what they are saying. If you want to be taken as a professional, please dress, act and talk like one. It’s not just a male/female way of speaking, I think it’s a generational thing. I know very few middle-aged women who speak like that.

    I doubt that upspeak will ever be accepted as authoritative, because it sounds so childish. So there’s some biology going on there, which will trump dogma almost every time.

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