After living in southern California for four years, upspeak, or the upward intonation at the end of a declarative statement commonly associated with “Valley girls,” rubbed off on me. At first I tried to get rid of it, worried about sounding like “one of those girls,” one like Clueless’s Cher Horowitz, someone that no one took seriously. Never mind that my upspeaking friends were pursuing graduate degrees at prestigious universities around the world, getting perfect LSAT scores, and finishing master’s programs before turning 22. But linguists Robin T. Lakoff and Mary Bucholtz included upspeak as a linguistic practice that “systemically [denies women] access to power” in their seminal work, Language and Woman’s Place. To them, the question-like sound of upspeak places the speaker in a dependent position, as if requesting information. So regardless of how smart or accomplished my friends were, the research told me their speech patterns indicated otherwise.
Lakoff and Bucholtz suspected that upspeak served as self-protection for female identified populations to avoid being perceived as bossy, bitchy, or pushy. However, the social result of upspeak can often do more harm than good. For example, Professor of psychology Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan wrote in Psychology Today that he finds upspeak not only annoying, but so “distracting” that he is unable to hear beyond it, and situates the phenomenon mostly within his female students. This article in Forbes mentions how a woman was denied a job after her interviewer, BusinessWeek CEO and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, told her she sounded like his granddaughter. Rather than questioning the blatant sexism here, the author of this article, John Baldoni instead recommends that ambitious women seek speech coaching to not only “neutralize distractions” in their voice, but actually imitate a male intonation, which is apparently “standard.”[i]
Baldoni assures female-identified readers that changing your voice will “not change you,” only the way you are perceived. But my question here is quite literally, how can femme voices be heard when sexist modes of professionalism demand their message be altered to fit within a “masculine” sensibility? While a hiring committee may prefer you to speak in a deeper, less animated tone, altering your speech at work may impair your ability to solve complex problems,[ii] generate ideas, and maintain personal investment in your work. There are many performance benefits to being able to self-express, and in the words of Professor Martin Schreier at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, “alignment between the goal and the identity… motivate[s you] to pursue this goal because you can affirm this part of the identity.” So if pursuing your professional goals means adopting a different identity, linguistic or otherwise, your employer may be preventing you from realizing the full scope of your ability.
On the flip side, several studies actually find upspeak to be prevalent in successful leaders. A study in Texas sororities found that senior members used upspeak more frequently than lower ranking members,[iii] and another study of Hong Kong business meetings found that meeting chairs used upspeak three to seven times more than their subordinates. Far from indicating a lack of authority, these findings suggest that upspeak can actually establish a productive common ground among a work group. Instead of positioning the speaker as submissive, upspeak allows them to offer their ideas, knowledge, and demands to the group rather than imposing them[iv] and establishes a respectful space where they are both a leader and a listener.
Clearly, upspeak can be interpreted very differently depending on the context and social standing of the speaker and listeners. Rather than projecting a singular, authoritarian brand of leadership, upspeak gives an impression of inclusivity, prompting responses from listeners and starting conversation. In white male professional settings (Peterson, Baldoni, and Bloomberg are all white men, as are many other critics of upspeak), assertions that share authority with listeners are “annoying” and “distracting,” especially when made by women. But in other leadership contexts, embracing upspeak may help foster a sense of equality and mutual respect within a group. In other words, upspeak will not help you prove your worth to people who already see you as less competent due to your gender expression, but it can be productive for forming and activating groups where many voices factor into leadership decisions.
As women, I know we have to pick our battles with sexist institutions, and the risks of embracing upspeak, at least when first joining a work group, may outweigh the benefits. However, if #MeToo taught us anything (beyond the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, that is), it’s that there’s immense power in voicing a shared experience. My ask is that we literally voice our experience by simply talking the way we talk, if not for the visibility of linguistic diversity, then for the performance benefits that go along with being yourself. In doing this, I ask that we educate those around us about the many prejudices against linguistic variants, especially those associated with a particular gender expression, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. And finally, I ask that we actively continue to examine our own language prejudices, and work towards confronting them.
Let’s make it a compliment to be “one of those women,” because it is.
Rica Maestas is a burqueña artist, author, and social practitioner riding that fine line between jokes and sincerity. She graduated from the Public Humanities program in 2018.
Baldoni, John. “Will 'Upspeak' Hurt Your Career?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 26 July 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/johnbaldoni/2015/07/30/will-upspeak-hurt-your-career/#50b6d8924edc
Hassell, Bravetta. “Self-Expression Has Power for Performance and Learning.” CLO Media, Chief Learning Officer Magazine, 15 Feb. 2019, www.clomedia.com/2017/04/24/self-expression-power-performance-learning/.
Hutson, Matthew. “Put a Bird on It.” Scientific American, 1 Mar. 2017, www.scientificamerican.com/article/put-a-bird-on-it/.
Kim, Heejung. “Culture and Self-Expression: Cultural Differences in Verbal Expression Lead to Distinctive Patterns of Cognitive Performance, Stress Responses, and Social Support.” American Psychological Association, June 2010, www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2010/06/sci-brief.
Lakoff, Robin Tolmach., and Mary Bucholtz. Language and Woman's Place: Text and Commentaries. Rev and expanded edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
McLemore, Cynthia A. The Pragmatic Interpretation of English Intonation: Sorority Speech. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Peterson, Christopher. “Upspeak.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31 December 2010, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/201012/upspeak.
Skorobogatav, Yana. “What's Up With Upspeak?” Berkeley Social Science, Berkeley University, 30 Sept. 2015,