In this episode of Communication Q&A, I have a question about a really common speech habit, coming our way from Melissa, who writes
“Hi Lauren – I saw your video on vocal fry and it made me think of a problem I’ve been having. A colleague has told me that I often use “upspeak” and it can make me sound insecure. I’ll admit this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this criticism, but I’m not sure what they’re talking about or how to fix it. Can you help me out?
Melissa from Melbourne.”
Ahh, uptalk – that little upwards lilt at the end of sentences that makes it sound as if you were asking a question. This much maligned speech behavior is common in both men and women, and can create mixed messages or misunderstandings. So how can you deal with uptalk (or upspeak)? Is is ALWAYS a bad thing?
Watch on to find out!
(Embedded video being cranky? Click here to watch directly on YouTube. You can also read the full transcript below).
I have a question about a really common speech habit, coming our way from Melissa, who writes
“Hi Lauren – I saw your video on vocal fry and it made me think of a problem I’ve been having. A colleague has told me that I often use “upspeak” and it can make me sound insecure. I’ll admit this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this criticism, but I’m not sure what they’re talking about or how to fix it. Can you help me out? Melissa from Melbourne.”
Melissa from Melbourne, thank you for asking this question. Like vocal fry, upspeak is a thorny and important topic in speech and communication, and one that just about anyone can benefit from understanding a bit more.
Upspeak, also known as Uptalk – or it’s technical name “High Rising Terminal”
Upwards Inflection at the end of sentences. Part of prosody, or the melody of speech. Prosody is really important – it moderates the meaning of our words and lets us communicate things through tone rather than language. Upspeak most commonly indicates a question (do you want to go to the Italian restaurant tonight?), but is also used to check for approval, understanding, or agreement (I think we should give the proposal a chance?), to show uncertainty (From what I understand, the study said that participation rates were actually declining?) and even to indicate that we’re not done speaking – a verbal ellipsis.
When used intentionally for one of those reasons, it’s very useful, it has clear meaning and purpose..
When NOT used for those purposes, it becomes problematic. If we sound like we’re asking a question but aren’t, the listener will misunderstand and might try to give us an answer when we aren’t looking for one. If we’re trying to come across authoritative or decisive, but give an upwards lilt that makes it sound as though we’re looking for approval, then we’re giving off mixed messages. And if it makes us sound like we aren’t done speaking, like there’s more coming, then we run the risk of leaving the other person hanging – they simply won’t know if it’s their turn to respond to you!
Because younger people are more often in positions where they need approval from those around them, or are more likely to be uncertain in their position or possibly of a lower rank in their company’s organization chart, they typically use upspeak more often. It also means that we often associate upspeak with insecurity, uncertainty, and lack of authority.
Who are you going to trust more – someone who says ‘My name is Chris? and I’m going to be managing your organization’s pension investment? It looks like you might be underfunded for the number of people who are retiring in the next five years, so I’d like to talk to you about ways of filling that gap?”
Or someone who says “Hi, I’m Chris, your pension investment manager. It seems that your organization may be underfunded for the number of anticipated upcoming retirements, so I’d like to talk to you about filling that gap.”
Big difference, no?
There are a lot of reasons why people might use upspeak in a problematic way, and a quick Q&A video isn’t the forum for investigating the psychological back alleys of habitual upspeak. I will say, though, that both men and women use upspeak appropriately and inappropriately. But what makes this a big can of worms is that women tend to get hammered harder for its use, and upspeak, along with vocal fry and criticism of pitch, is often used as a heavily gendered form criticism. Sometimes criticizing a person on their upspeak is used as a way of shaming them into shutting up, whereas other times it’s well-intentioned and intended on helping them improve their impact and gravitas. These communication gender politics can sometimes make offering or receiving feedback or criticism on upspeak touchy.
Let’s get back on actually managing upspeak.
Should you never use upspeak? Do men get a free pass on it while women need to quash it? Of course not! Upspeak is one of the many ways we indicate intent or meaning. But you should use it when it’s meaningful and appropriate, otherwise you run the risk of sending mixed messages or not being heard the way you intend. Everyone can benefit from being able to control their use of it so you can be sure you’re sending the message you want.
Very often we don’t hear ourselves using problematic upspeak – it’s a speech habit that is easier to detect in others than in ourselves. If you aren’t sure whether or not you’re an uptalker or if your upspeak is problematic, ask a few trusted friends or colleagues! Other people are usually pretty good at pointing it out. Just be sure to ask people who you trust and who you know will be honest with you. If a number of people say that you use upspeak too often, then it’s probably a good idea to take steps to retrain your speaking habits.
If you find that you habitually use upspeak when you shouldn’t, I have a few suggestions for getting a handle on it.
First up, be sure of your overall intention when you speak. Are you in fact looking to guage understanding or approval? Are you asking a question? Are you trying to persuade someone of your point of view? Wanting to convince them to take an action? Knowing your underlying intent of communication can help you be more aware of what vocal inflections will be important.
Next, focus on speaking in declarative sentences. Visualize a period at the end of each of your sentence, and speak slowly, driving your energy and tone to that period, then hitting it with a very slight drop in pitch.
Make sure to give yourself lots of support through your core, and make sure you breathe frequently enough that you can give yourself that well-supported, authoritative done at the end of the sentence. A lack of core support or running out of air can make you rush your speech, and if you’re a habitual uptalker, this can make you even more prone to the upspeak.
And be sure to stick with the recommendations I’ve given you for a while. You’re re-training an ingrained speech habit, and it will take time and repetition to master this. But trust me, the effort is worthless.
That’s it for today’s question! Please remember to like this video, subscribe to my channel, ring that bell for notifications. Then make sure to head to laurensergy.com and sign up in the pop up to get my latest videos and articles, as well as great content and resources that I only share with subscribers.
Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to seeing you on the next Communication Q&A!