Gender and Uptalk

I’ve been thinking about uptalk a bit lately–someone suggested to me that it’s not a beneficial speech habit for women, as it might play in to negative stereotypes–and just came across this discussion of an interesting study on gender differences in the use of uptalk. The take-away:

As Linneman explains, “One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show.”  Linneman measured success in two ways: He compared challengers to returning champions, and he tracked how far ahead or behind contestants were when they responded.  Linneman found that, “The more successful a man is on the show, the less he uses uptalk. The opposite is true for women… the more successful a woman is on the show, the more she uses uptalk.” Linneman suspects that this is “because women continue to feel they must apologize for their success.”

There’s another interesting discussion at Slate, In Defense of Upspeak.

Readers: What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Gender and Uptalk

  1. The game show context makes it hard to judge here. Rising intonation can sometimes be simply phrasing something as a question (which contestants are supposed to do here: I don’t see this study being interpreted as proof that men can’t understand instructions as well as women; that’s surely as plausible as women feeling like they need to apologise for their success). But it can also be something else enitrely (to be established my empirical study, not armchair reflection on how rising intonation is something women do more and so therefore must be to do with insecurity and uncertainty). It’s plausible that in a game show setting, uptalk might signal uncertainty. But it doesn’t follow that it does in other contexts. See the references here for the claim that uptalk is in fact a matter of asserting dominance or control:, where Liberman suggests that the association of uptalk with insecure women is the result of selective attention and confirmation bias.

  2. I always recommend to my students (be they women or men) that they pay attention to their uptalkiness and do everything they can to learn to modulate their speech so that they do not uptalk. It definitely makes a person come across as unsure of what they are saying, and I have also read that the most effective and convincing speakers lower their intonation at the end of sentences. Many years ago I used to circulate a short newspaper article by philosopher Tom Hurka about the perils of uptalk (but I’ve since lost it, its title, and the book it was in). Students always appreciated becoming aware and those who had the uptalk tendency usually adjusted their speaking pattern pretty early in the course as they started to notice it in themselves and their classmates.

  3. Tracy: Is the article “The Way You Talk Can Hurt You?” from the section on Non-Verbal Communication in ‘Looking Out, Looking In’?

  4. Tracy, I’ve been doing some research on uptalk in linguistics literature. I don’t have my sources handy, but there are convincing studies to show that men and women *both* uptalk at approximately the same frequency. But it’s almost invariably ignored when men do it, and noticed when women do it (certainly related to confirmation bias). Moreover, uptalking has two roles: people in higher power conversational positions use it to invite lower power conversation people to contribute; people in lower power conversational positions use it to invite agreement from higher power people. It does *NOT* communicate a lack of confidence per se. This is a pretty big myth.

    This is related to the use of tag questions (e.g., It’s a nice day, isn’t it? vs. It’s a nice day.). Again, both men and women use these equally, but it’s a persistent myth that women do it more.

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