Speak Up, But Don’t Upspeak!


Recently I attended a dinner event and asked a lovely young woman, a 22 year-old associate director for a local non-profit, “What does your organization do?”

She replied, “We promote ethical fashion?”

I was momentarily confused.  And not by her words, but by the way she said them, with an upward inflection, making what should have been a statement, “We promote ethical fashion” into a question.

As she continued talking to me and later as she addressed the entire audience, almost all of her statements ended with an upward inflection.

Everything is a question?

She sounded like a Valley Girl from the 80s.   It was bad enough in conversation, but when she addressed the group using what linguists call “high rising terminal,” or more commonly “uptalk” or “upspeak,” it was grating.  I couldn’t even pay attention to what she was saying because I was so distracted by how she was saying it.

While there is some evidence that leaders of peer groups can use upspeak to be inclusive and to influence (and that even George W. Bush began to use it extensively in his speeches during his presidency), to do so excessively can cause people to doubt your credibility.

And it’s not just young women who are at risk for using upspeak, according to Wikipedia this “intonation is characteristic of the speech heard in those parts of rural North Dakota and Minnesota” which have been influenced by the Norwegian language.

You may be speaking in upspeak and not even realize it.  Record yourself at your next speech and listen to your intonation.  For any declarative sentences that you turn into a question, write them down and practice saying them without rising intonation. Don’t leave people wondering, “Are you asking me or telling me?”

Speak up, but don’t upspeak!