Why do you speak the way you speak? Are you aware of your voice being marked by region, gender, or age? Do you consciously try to modify your voice, or do you just let it flow?
We know that word choice, inflection, and pronunciation telegraph our personal experiences and identity in multiple ways. I’ve struggled to temper the nasally short A and hard R of a Western New York accent (though this recently popular NY Times quiz about word choice and pronunciation accurately identified my city of origin). In her collection of personal essays Crossing Ocean Parkway, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick discusses feeling ethnically marked in academe because of her Italian heritage and growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
What is our responsibility to students to help them increase their vocal awareness?
I feel compelled to let students know when they engage in persistent “upspeak” or “uptalk” –the rising pitch shift at the end of a sentence that makes statements sound like questions. This vocal trend is so common that it often goes unnoticed, particularly among millennials. I like to tell students who are unconsciously using upspeak that it sounds like they are asking the audience if what they are saying is correct, when, in fact, they have done the research and therefore they are the experts.
Lake Bell’s 2013 romantic comedy In a World tackled the issue of how gender politics impact vocal styles and what U.S. society seems to want from male and female voices. Here is the trailer:
In her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bell surmises that reality television has popularized what she calls a “sexy baby voice” (from 19:30-21:20 in the interview is particularly relevant). This multidisciplinary social science website The Society Pages took a look (or listen!) at the question of “The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God” –gendered vocal styles taken to their extremes.
The same website also profiled the research of Tom Linneman, an associate professor of sociology at The College of William and Mary, who conducted a study of how gender affects use of uptalk and determined that, in his sample, women used a rising intonation almost twice as often as men and actually increased their use of it when they were succeeding at a task (in this case, answering Jeopardy questions). This was perhaps “because women continue to feel they need to apologize for their success.”
On the other hand, the freelance journalist Jessica Grose, who often writes for Slate’s The XX Factor, found that her use of upspeak helped her sound “egalitarian and accepting” which was a benefit for some interview contexts. But when it came to hosting a podcast, those same vocal patterns annoyed listeners and undermined her credibility.
The Australian voice coach Victoria Mielewaksa, who has worked on several Hollywood blockbusters, offers a more generous interpretation of uptalk, suggesting that this vocal pattern “has something to do with the way we want to involve our listener… It’s the ‘you know what I mean, I’m trying to be nice, I want to include you in what I’m saying.’” Mielewaksa’s observations resonated strongly for me. I realized that when I am giving students a new assignment I often use upspeak as if to ask “Are you getting this? Do you understand?” But, maybe I should just ask those questions after I’ve explained the assignment without relying on upspeak.
The video with Mielewaksa’s observation is embedded in a recent LinkedIn post. The post is worth a look. It summarizes a Pearson survey of bosses that showed employer use of upspeak can affect hiring and raises. It also highlights something I never knew, which is that upspeak is also called Australian Question Intonation (AQI) and is not considered a mark of gender or age in Australia, it’s just considered Australian.