Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Men and Women, Like Totally, Talk Differently?

About a year ago, while preparing to go on the post-doc job talk circuit, I was practicing in front of my research group at Berkeley.  A post-doc pulled me aside after my talk and pointed out to me that I have a particular vocal tic.  A tic, she said, that tends to be more prevelant in young women called "uptalk."

Uptalk (or high rising terminal) is the use of a rising, questioning intonation even when making a statement. The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, which some interpret as a signal of uncertainty and subordination (Lakoff 1975).

This post-doc warned me that many people, especially older faculty, find this tic annoying, grating, or a sign of lack of confidence or subject knowledge.  She suggested that I try to become more aware of when I am doing it and remove it from my vocal patterns -- especially when giving an academic talk.

I grew up in California.  Clueless and Legally Blonde were two of my favorite movies as a teenager.  I am aware that my tendency to sound like a "valley girl" can cause people to take me less seriously.  However, I've never believed that my use of a high rising terminal was due to a lack of confidence, immaturity, or submissiveness.  While I wanted to take onboard this well-intentioned feedback, I also felt the desire to push back against this criticism.  Why is talking "girly" necessarily a bad thing?

Which is why I found this study by Professor Thomas Linneman very interesting. Linneman studied the use of uptalk by Jeopardy! contestants.  His finding was that women do use uptalk ~20% more frequently than men.  However, the reasons for and conditions when uptalk is used are very different for men and women.

According to Linneman:
The more successful a woman was doing on the show, the higher her propensity to use uptalk, exactly the opposite of what one would expect the relationship to be between success and certainty. [Conversely], the more successful a man is [in the show], the less likely he is to use uptalk.
He goes on to propose an explanation for this finding:
Women who enjoy higher status, either by winning [score leader in current game] or by being a returning champion, use uptalk more than women of lower status. One possible explanation for this is that successful women are engaging in a compensatory strategy in order to perform their gender “correctly.” A woman brashly flaunting her knowledge is perceived by some as engaging in an inappropriate gender performance, or she is, at least, held more accountable for this performance (West and Zimmerman 1987). Research in other contexts has shown that women who show dominance are considered unlikable and unfeminine (Carli 1990; Costrich, Feinstein, and Kidder 1975). Perhaps successful women on Jeopardy! engage in uptalk more often in order to temper this negative effect.

Linneman also refers to other studies which find that women's use of uptalk have motivations other than being submissive or uncertain:
Linguists have argued that the interpretation of uptalk depends on the specific context in which the uptalk occurs (Gunlogson 2001; Tomlinson 2009). Britain, for example, argues that uptalk is used for “the establishment of solidary common ground between the speaker and the hearer” (Britain 1998, 215). It is a way of “checking in” with the listener to make sure that she or he is still following what the speaker is saying. For example, researchers have found that speakers are more likely to use uptalk when they are relating a narrative of considerable length in order to ensure that the listener is keeping up (Guy et al. 1986). McLemore (1991) found in her study of a sorority that women leaders used uptalk during meetings as a strategy in order to achieve consensus among the group. The use of uptalk in these situations, and the relative prominence of uptalk in female speech, results not from uncertainty but rather from different gendered norms regarding cooperation and competition. Women are more likely to see interaction as a task that the actors are working on together, whereas men see interaction through a lens of rivalry (Coates 2003).
These explanations resonate with this uptalker.  Perhaps I don't need to feel self-conscious about this tic after all?  If you find this speech pattern grating or assume it is a sign of uncertainty, perhaps you should consider that the speaker is trying to be inclusive?

[1] Britain, David. 1998. Linguistic change in intonation: The use of high-rising terminals in New Zealand English. In The sociolinguistics reader, vol. 1: Variation and multilingualism
[2] Carli, Linda L. 1990. Gender, language, and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59:941-51.
[3] Coates, Jennifer. 2003. Men talk. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
[4] Costrich, Norma, Joan Feinstein, and Louise Kidder. 1975. When stereotypes hurt: Three studies of penalties for sex-role reversals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 11:520-30.
[5] Gunlogson, Christine A. 2001. True to form: Rising and falling declaratives as questions in English. Ph.D. diss., University of California at Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA.
[6] Guy, Gregory, Barbara Horvath, Julia Vonwiller, Elaine Daisley, and Inge Rogers. 1986. An intonational change in progress in Australian English. Language in Society 15:23-51
[7] Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and women’s place. New York: Harper & Row.
[8] McLemore, Cynthia A. 1991. The pragmatic interpretation of English intonation: Sorority speech. Ph.D. diss., University of Texas-Austin, Austin, TX.
[9] Tomlinson, John M. Jr. 2009. Talking it up: The role of temporal context in the interpretation of uptalk. Ph.D. diss., University of California-Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA.
[10]West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. Doing gender. Gender & Society 1:125-51.