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.



Anonymous said...

I had a British housemate for a year in graduate school who wouldn't inflect up at the end of a question. I adopted the speech pattern as a way to turn questions into statements, don't you know. It helps me show some confidence, even when I'm terribly uncertain.

Marat said...

It's certainly not an issue of good or bad. It's an issue of conservative vs. innovative, and old white dudes, even at progressive highly-educated places, are pretty conservative. (This is a statement about personal practice; I'm not trying to wade into politics here.) A good discussion can be found here, by people who more the most part know what they're talking about, although there isn't consensus on how much to expect such innovations to extend into the rest of the population as time goes on.

Vaishali said...

I was also born and raised in cali and do tend to say "like", etc. I'm not going to remove 'like' from my vocabulary in every day life, but the same way I'm not gonna put slang terms or cuss words that are a part of my daily vocab in a talk, I'm not gonna talk in a way that may come off as dumb in any way. It's great that this research has been done regarding uptalk which shows that it has nothing to do with actual lack of intellect, but the fact remains that it gives off the impression of 'sounding dumb'. The issue of you doing uptalk was never about whether you were actually unconfident, but what you were perceived as. A faculty member or an employer is never going to dig deep to understand the reasoning behind an intonation, but purely judge on what impression it gives off. I believe that sometimes idealism can lead to impracticality, in this case, the fact that you shouldn't be perceived to be dumb based on some vocal inflection. And, well, I've heard myself saying things like "umm" and "like" in a talk and they DO make me sound dumb.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks Vaishali. Obviously there is a need to use common sense and be professional when giving talks. What concerns me is that "sounding dumb" in this case has huge gender and age biases. So young women are more likely to "sound dumb" than their male counterparts just by speaking in a way that is the social norm for their age and gender. I think this issue requires awareness on both sides. Uptalkers should be aware of how they can be perceived. Audiences should be aware that this speech pattern might not mean what they think it means.

Anonymous said...

As a nearly 40-yr old female astronomer who grew up in New England, I find uptalk to be intensely annoying. I say to myself, "Damn it, are you stating a conclusion or asking a question?" I don't exactly think the people who do this sound dumb, but they do sound uncertain to me. I have noticed, however, that there are definite geographical and age correlations in the use of uptalk. It's more common even among younger men (though *much* more common among women overall). I have wondered whether younger people who use uptalk find it to be totally normal and not "questioning-sounding."

At any rate, I still think the verbal cue for a question should be reserved for actual questions. Though it is interesting to read that it might be related to consensus-building in discussions among groups of women. But the fact that uptalk is definitely a relatively new habit makes me think it wasn't always that way.

Eilat said...

In this ego driven world, the thing that drives me nuts is the overconfident way that some (usually male) people assert things. Because a tiny bit of probing reveals that maybe a little uptalk from those folks would convey the truth: they are also uncertain about what they say!

Ian Paul Freeley said...

This seems to be related to the verbal tic of ending a statement with "right?", right? I would agree both uptalk and "right?" are attempts to make sure the audience is keeping up, but can become grating if they are excessive. I think both show up a lot when the speaker is nervous. From my hazy memory of many talks, I think women use uptalk more while men tend to use "right?".

This issue becomes very important in the classroom if you want to foster an interactive environment. Your students are never going to interact with you if they can't tell the difference between your lecturing and when you are actually asking them a question! Personally, I'd like to see colloquium speakers actually ask the audience questions as well.

Chris Klein said...

The study on Jeopardy! needs further description before I can take its findings seriously. Most of what the contestants actually say on the show is in the form of a question It's supposed to have a high rising terminal! If the study confined itself to the brief "get to know the contestants" portion, then I don't mind. However, the discussion of how the contestants use uptalk as a function of their performance indicates they were actually analyzing the speech used by contestants in supplying questions to the game show's answers. In any event, it is a bit ironic that the study on uptalk focuses on a game show where the contestants most speak in questions.

Chris Klein said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elisabeth said...

I remember a drama class when I was a kid (also in California) where the teacher tried to train us out of this habit. He was British, and considered making every statement as a question a peculiarity associated with Americans in general, not just women. It seems likely to me that women do use the speech pattern more, but I'll still keep trying to avoid it.

Anonymous said...

There was just a NY Times article about a journalist who tried to train herself out of upspeak: