Like many of us, my manner of speech changes depending on the environment I’m in and who I’m talking with. My accent shifts, my sentence structure changes, I become more or less self-deprecating, I accompany my spoken words with varying gestures. We are all social chameleons even if we aren’t aware of it; try watching yourself for a day as you move through different spaces and see how the way you interact with people changes depending on who they are.
Do you talk differently with your doctor, a group of friends at a restaurant, your students, your coworkers? You likely do, even if you aren’t making a conscious choice to do so. Speech is how we fit ourselves into social roles, marking membership within a community, projecting dominance, asserting confidence, deferring to people whom we think of as senior.
Among women and people read as women, one of the most widespread speech phenomena is uptalking; where people end a sentence on a high note, turning it into a question instead of a statement. You know, like, how women sometimes sound unsure of what they are saying? Which isn’t to say that men don’t engage in uptalk too, but it’s definitely coded as something women do, and it’s a topic of extensive conversation among people curious about how uptalking reflects on socialisation and the way women interact with society.
A lot of people express contempt for uptalk and say it frustrates them to hear. But they don’t explore the origins of the phenomenon and talk about why so many women unconsciously feel like they need to phrase statements as questions. It’s a very submissive speech tic, after all, one that says the speaker is willing to defer to the people around her when it comes to a definitive reply to the statement. Suddenly something that could be a simple assertion is turned up for debate, and the speaker’s position in the conversation is undermined.
Like a lot of people who are read as women, I sometimes engage in uptalk, although I try to catch it and eradicate it because I prefer to project confidence when I speak, and I notice that it makes people uncomfortable. People sometimes tell me that I sound aggressive or am difficult to interact with in person, something clearly rooted in a lot of things, but I strongly suspect that one of those things is that I do not have the tendency to present my statements and beliefs as questions. Which doesn’t mean I’m not open to talking about them, but does mean that I have no interest in entertaining the idea that my speech has no value.
Forms of uptalk appear in written text too—women tend to be more likely to use phrases like ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ in text instead of just making a statement, and it’s amazing how text changes when you eliminate them. I was startled when I realised how much I relied on them to soften what I was saying, and how much stronger my communication skills became when I consciously made an effort to avoid them. There’s a reason that text analysis programmes often read my text as produced by a man, not a woman; fewer qualifiers, less of a tendency to undermine the very points being made in the text with weasel words in an attempt to make myself small and nonthreatening.
Uptalk, qualifiers, all of these things are designed to make the speaker seem unimportant, and, critically, not a danger to other speakers in the room. They send a signal that the speaker understands her (or ou) place in the conversation and isn’t going to overstep boundaries. When people discard these habits, they’re perceived as aggressive, and may be targeted with nasty commentary for it. Because listeners get uncomfortable when women speak articulately and confidently instead of mumbling or overriding themselves.
When I started paying more conscious attention to my writing and speech patterns in public places, I also noticed that it helped me with my impostor syndrome. Yes, I, like many people, experience impostor syndrome, the persistent feeling that I don’t belong, that I’m faking it along somehow, that any minute, I will be unmasked and sent back to stand in the corner. The idea that I am not actually an authority on any subject, and that people shouldn’t respect me.
Impostor syndrome is, again, common in women, people socialised as women, and people read as women. It’s a constant reminder that we belong in the kitchen making pies, not making speeches at tech conferences, writing books, presenting on panels, leading countries, or engaging in society. And it’s reinforced by subtle things like our own speech patterns, which tell us that we’re worthless even as we’re trying to fight the internal pressure telling us we don’t belong and should go hide in the back room and vomit.
Which, I hasten to say, isn’t an attempt on my part to say that people are responsible for their own impostor syndrome, because they are not. Instead, they are socialised into it, trained to think that way about themselves, and to make sure they get the message, society makes sure they trap themselves in impostor syndrome by teaching them how to communicate. And it’s not easy to break these habits; those who haven’t managed to do it aren’t failures, and this isn’t about blaming victims of social systems designed to keep some people marginalised while others dominate.
It’s more about how much I learned about society and myself when I confronted my own impostor syndrome and linguistic tics and consciously tried to shift my internalised attitudes. Few people have access to the kinds of tools they need to make those shifts, which raises the important question of how we can change the way people are socialised to make sure these behaviours don’t arise in the first place. How can we make young women and girls more confident in their speech and beliefs so they don’t have to struggle with extinguishing these behaviours after the fact?