May 15th, 2017 .

Speak Up, Don’t Upspeak

Pat Morden

Recently I did a telephone interview with an exceptional young woman. She was articulate, bright, creative, and funny. But she sounded like a five-year-old.

It’s not unusual. Many young women (and some older ones) speak very quickly, in high, soft voices. They routinely add a question mark at the end of declarative sentences, a voice pattern referred to as “upspeak.” Another common vocal pattern, vocal fry, refers to the tendency to sound gravelly and indistinct at the end of a phrase.

There are many theories to explain these phenomena. Obviously, women have higher voices than men, because their throats are generally smaller. Softer voices have always been considered feminine, even sexy (think Marilyn Monroe). It may be a habit rewarded in childhood and carried into adulthood. “Some kids, when they have cute voices, get a lot more attention,” says vocal coach Roger Love. Women may be trying, perhaps unconsciously, to be non-threatening to male counterparts.

But here’s the thing: you can’t imagine Hilary Clinton using upspeak during the presidential debates, or Angela Merkel addressing the Bundestag in a soft, high-pitched voice. Adding a question mark at the end of a sentence suggests that you’re not sure there’s value in what you’re saying. Speaking quickly and indistinctly could read as an attempt to slip something by. Certainly, it means that your message is less likely to be clearly understood.

Some have argued that it’s a generational thing – old fogies like me have trouble with uptalk and vocal fry, but younger people don’t. That may well be the case.

For now, it’s probably wise to think about what your voice is saying about you. You could train with a vocal coach, but it’s really not that difficult to slow down and speak more clearly. It’s not impossible to lower the frequency of your voice a little. You’ll still be you, with maybe a little more oomph.

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