Think Only Women Upspeak? Really?

Valley girl

Chances are you’ve heard (or used) the words above to describe a woman’s voice. Upspeak – the habit of pitching your voice up at the end of a sentence – along with its reality TV-ready sidekick, Vocal Fry (for the uninitiated, have a listen), strike again. Yet, we hear upspeak and fry in just as many men as we do women.

This isn’t just a Decker observation. According to NPR, the New York Times and many others, women and men are both guilty of upspeak and vocal fry. And yet, women tend to be singled out and judged for their vocal habits much more harshly. What gives? Lots of reasons:

  • Female voices tend to be higher in pitch overall, so they stand out above lower-pitched male voices.
  • There are more women in the workplace than ever before, yet only 21 Fortune 500 companies were helmed by women in 2016. Women in leadership roles often stand in a spotlight alone.
  • Millennial speech patterns are changing the way we communicate in business and, like it or not, the most frequent perpetrators of upspeak are often younger employees, across genders. Young women bear the brunt of criticism because of existing stereotypes and easy comparisons to other young women, like certain reality TV stars who are also noted poor communicators. As baby boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials collide at work, so do their opinions of what’s okay to say – and how.

The ability to connect and convey warmth is the most important vocal quality for everyone, no matter their gender. So what are smart women – and men! – to do when smarting from vocal feedback?

  • Avoid the dreaded upspeak: Think of your voice like music notes and practice adding vocal variety, then end your sentences on a lower note than where you started.
  • Seek more feedback. It’s easy to shrink back, but ask for a vocal 3×3 from peers and colleagues to level set. There’s value in getting multiple perspectives from colleagues of all ages and genders.
  • Know your audience. Like all behaviors, the voice can shift based on the situation. If you’re in a high-stakes or more formal setting, push your pitch down to emphasize a lower tone. Casually chatting with peers who also swing up? Don’t sweat the upspeak as much – it’ll just get in the way of actually connecting with your colleagues.
  • Give feedback, too! As we learned from Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, men are rewarded for speaking out and women aren’t. Using the 3×3 feedback model ensures that balanced feedback is a two-way street. Bonus: giving balanced feedback helps you come across as both strong and warm, two vital qualities for women at work, according to Sandberg.
  • Record yourself and listen back. Then, ask yourself what you think is adding or detracting from your message. As Cicero said, “No one can give you wiser advice than yourself.”

Aim for warmth, connection and authenticity as you practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it will make permanent when it comes to eliminating upspeak. Period, end of sentence.

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