Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Hey Ladies—Here's How to Ignore All the Critics and Use Upspeak to Your Advantage


You’ve probably seen (at least) some of the constant complaints that women just talk wrong, all the time.

If so, you’re probably wondering what we’re doing that’s so terrible. Sometimes it’s vocal fry—talking in a low, “fried”-sounding voice. Oh, but do note that if we talk “normally”, without vocal fry, we are annoyingly high-pitched. Other times it’s saying “just” (really). Or, of course, upspeak. (“My name is Jennifer? I’m the new project manager?”)

(Note: There’s more going on here than just gender—this piece notes that uptalk is not typically associated with African-American women, while this article notes differences in how English is spoken internationally.)

The feminist internet has handled this with aplomb (here, here, here, here, here, here, and—hilariously—here), both sarcastically dispatching with these complaints, as well as providing trenchant criticism of the not-so-veiled misogyny inherent in these charges.

So let me just add one thing: These vocal techniques can be a tool to get things done.

And as with all tools, using these vocal techniques at the wrong time can lead to undesired results. So, I want to talk about how and when to use stereotypically female speech patterns effectively for your own purposes.

The Many Uses of Uptalk

Men and women frequently use upspeak to indicate that something’s sort of a question, but we’d honestly really like the person to agree with the stated option. “Should we meet at 2? ” allows for many acceptable answers, while “We’re meeting at 2? ” indicates that the meeting will take place at 2 PM unless you have a serious objection.

In a 2013 New York Times piece, researchers reported that both men and women used uptalk when giving declarative statements, for the purpose of confirming that they’re being understood. (“Turn left at the light?”)

Perhaps more importantly:

“Uptalk, the researchers found, could also serve a strategic purpose through a technique known as ‘floor-holding,’ in which the speaker, anticipating an interruption by the listener, tries to stave it off by using a rising tone at the end of a statement. Floor-holding is the vocal equivalent of holding up your palm, as if to say, ‘Wait, I’m not finished!’”

Since women often report being interrupted more (see: How to Get Heard in Meetings), a defense mechanism against interruption seems more than reasonable.

You’re probably already using upspeak for many of these purposes. When could we maybe use it more deliberately?

Creating Quality in an Inherently Unequal Situation

Most of the vocal techniques women are criticized for do in fact put you in a non-dominant position.

Non-dominant doesn’t necessarily mean subordinate—sometimes it means deliberately equal. Why would you want to be in a non-dominant—or even momentarily subordinate—position?

OMG, lots of reasons. First, equality is just good for its own sake. More specifically, is it your job to help people, or gently persuade them?

If you’re a teacher, counselor, trainer, or nurse, your effectiveness depends on putting people at ease, and it puts people at ease to lower yourself to a peer level. And if you’re a journalist, spy, or health inspector, lowering yourself to the level of total non-threat—someone of little consequence, left to observe in the background—is of obvious value.

I teach GRE and GMAT math to adults. These are college graduates and professionals, some of whom work on Wall Street. A lot of people have what I like to call “math trauma.” That is, they’re pretty sure they’re smart—until someone brings up math, and then they’re right back in third grade.

I use upspeak and “just” literally all the time when teaching math, in order to create and maintain a sense of ease and equality. This assures students—without having to say it, which would be hella awkward—that I’m not here to lord my skills over them or make them feel dumb.

“You can’t divide out the x because we don’t know it might be equal to zero, so instead you just factor it out?” Ooh, that’s a gentle suggestion. Now it’s your turn! Yay math!

Socratic Questioning

The Socratic method is a way of leading someone to a conclusion by only speaking in questions, causing that person to have to get there via his own answers. In real life, the actual Socratic method can be extremely annoying.

Uptalk is sort of the Diet Coke version of the Socratic method.

Back to my math example: If I just tell you to square both sides of an equation, you’re probably going to do it without question, because I’m the teacher. If I say, “So we’ll square both sides?”, it keeps you on your toes. I like to add a little bit of doubt (and, occasionally, I do make mistakes!), so even when I’m giving a direction or stating a fact, we’re collaborating.

To Bond With Young People

Apparently, old people have much more negative reactions to vocal fry. From Amanda Hess on Slate:

While people like tend to think that the inflection makes women sound bored, obnoxious and mindless, college aged students, after listening to a recording of a woman who spoke with a vocal fry, determined that the speaker was “professional,” “urban,” “looking for her career,” “not yet a professional, but on her way there” and that the affectation was “a prestigious characteristic of contemporary female speech.”

Want to hang with the young people? A little bit of vocal fry—if it’s natural to you anyway—is probably a good move.

I sometimes teach young people. I can do one voice while teaching, and then another after class when I stay and answer questions. Young adults are perfectly able to appreciate that older people have a professional self and a more natural self, and slipping into a relaxed voice (but not telling all the details of your wild weekend) is just the right amount of intimacy to create a close and supportive relationship with students.

This isn’t specific to teaching. There are plenty of reasons you could want to bond with young people. One good reason is that you might want be selling a product or service. A better reason is that at some point you will be old, and they will be in charge.

To Prod Others Along With Their Deadlines and Obligations

“Just” is commonly used when someone is late with something. Everyone knows that. “Hey, I just want to follow up…” is a concise way of saying, “I don’t want to be a jerk, but you should have taken care of this by now.”

In fact, adding “just” is actually MORE aggressive than not:

Could you follow up on that email I sent you last Friday? (Threat level: 2/10)

Could you just follow up on that email I sent you last Friday? (Threat level: 5/10)

From Lesley Kinzel on XOJane, about using uptalk to the same effect:

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.

To Get People to Keep Telling You Things

Let me give you an example. Elliot, who was hired two weeks after me to do the same job? He’s feeling very comfortable right now. He’s telling me a story about getting hired. We’re bonding. He’s getting to the part of the story about salary negotiation. I want to know how much money he makes so I know if I’m being treated unfairly and/or should ask for a raise. Time for vocal fry, upspeak, and “just” all at once. The message: I am not a threat. Tell me everything.

And then you get the information and use it to make more money.

And finally…

Talk Like (Many) Young Women to Get Young Women as Customers

I do.

It’s just obvious?

A logo with "the muse" in white text.