WASHINGTON, November 7, 2012 — You learned how to communicate, really successfully, at school? Then you got your first job? And it didn’t work out? Even though you graduated summa? Cum laude?
There’s a big difference in how people communicate successfully with their peer groups and what they need to do to communicate successfully with everybody else.
If you want to learn about one of the many differences between communicating at school and at work, read on. Specifically we’ll discuss uptalk, where it came from, what it is, and its advantages and disadvantages in different social situations. After reading this article, you will be able to identify uptalk in conversation. You’ll also have a few options for dealing with your own uptalk habits, if you have any?
There are hundreds of technical definitions for uptalk, but this phenomenon is easily recognizable, usually when other people are doing it. Uptalk is ending a declarative sentence as if it were a question?
Read the previous sentence aloud and you’ll hear the inappropriate rising tone. That’s uptalk.
Established professionals don’t use uptalk?
That’s right. They don’t.
The current uptalk phenomenon apparently originated in the 1980s among affluent young women living in the San Fernando Valley and spread from there. Given its origin, this artificial habit of speech was initially named after its originators, the “Valley Girls.” Like, omigod? Since then, though, it’s spread far beyond its linguistic point of origin in spite of the fact that this vocal pattern was ruthlessly lampooned from the outset. In most professional circles, hearing a young woman use uptalk in a business or professional environment will instantly connote an image—right or wrong—of a young female who still hasn’t reached escape velocity from a giggly and unserious adolescence.
There’s a lot of discussion online about why young women use uptalk in inappropriate social situations. But the fact remains that many of them don’t even know they do it. Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, said, “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
Actually, everybody uses features of language as power tools. It’s just that communication that works well in one environment can backfire in another one.
A little peer pressure, in the right tone of voice, can go a long way. According to an article in the New York Times, Cynthia McLemore, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, found way back in ‘91 that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday? And everyone needs to be there?”)
And here’s another view of uptalk in use on the job from comments in the same article: “I spent 28 years teaching 3rd year medical students how to do a patient-centered pelvic exam. As “uptalking” became more common, women students sounded more and more ridiculous. “I’ll be palpating your left ovary?” … This doesn’t inspire confidence in patients! “I’ll be operating on your right knee?” Women give up their vocal power using uptalking and sound pathetically unsure of themselves in situations where they need to be seen as strong and sure to be taken seriously.”
Encounter enough female uptalk in the business world, and you begin to conclude that a massive number of well-educated, intelligent young women carelessly and unconsciously undermine their own authority on the job by presenting themselves as fundamentally unserious little girls.
So I should stop uptalking?
Not necessarily. But by now you should be aware of the consequences of indulging in uptalk 24/7. If uptalk is still useful for you in non-business social situations (i.e., still hang out with college friends; boyfriend loves it), you can learn how to turn it on and off by using a technique called “style shifting.”
But first, learn how to stop uptalking using the tips below. Then practice going back and forth between the two styles of speaking. That’s “style shifting.” If this process feels like work, it’ll be hard to learn, so try to have fun with it instead.
1. Notice how you speak and listen to how others speak. What’s happening to the tones at the ends of sentences? Are they going up for questions and down for statements?
2. Make sure your statements end with a verbal period (lower tone of voice), and your questions end with a verbal question mark (higher tone of voice). While you’re practicing, avoid changing the volume of your voice; just change the pitch.
3. Practice your new way of talking. Talk to sales clerks, plumbers, massage therapists—people whom your normally don’t have extended conversations with. Then talk to sympathetic friends. Who knows? They might have the same problem and be glad to practice with you. Try it, a little at a time, in the office, and observe how people react to you. They may look momentarily surprised, but you’ll be even more surprised at the respect and responsiveness you’ll receive over time.
4. Record your voice. Yes, it’s weird, but who’s going to listen unless you invite them to? If you don’t like how your entire voice sounds, blame the equipment and focus only on pitch.
5. Ask for help, but be picky. People love helping, especially if they know that you’re working to improve yourself. Just make sure you’re asking someone who’ll give you honest feedback that’s also sympathetic. Remember, the fact that you ask for feedback also gives you the right to evaluate it and decide for yourself whether to accept it or not.
We all speak in different ways to different people. For example, how you speak to your best friend is different from how you speak to your parents, but you usually don’t think about it while you do it. “Style-shifting” is the conscious act of deliberately choosing to vary the way that you speak to different individuals or groups for one or more specific reasons.
By following our simple steps above, and then making yourself more conscious that different audiences react positively to different types of verbal cues, you can soon arrive at the point where you internalize the mental on/off switch you’ll need to become an accomplished verbal style-shifter.
Style-shifting might not seem as impressive as Odo’s shape-shifting in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” But an ability to shape-shift in speech will serve you in good stead in the world of business, particularly if you’ve found that your instinctive uptalking is holding you back from advancement.
When you become adept at style-shifting, you’ll find that you can easily use or not use uptalk depending upon the person or people you’re speaking to, the situation in which you’re involved, and, ultimately, the results you want from the conversation itself.
And I, like, won’t even begin to talk about—you know—filler words. Or vocal fry. Until another time. Stay tuned.
Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at Amazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn.
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