7/28/15
If You Don’t Like Vocal Fry and Uptalk, You’re (Probably) Old and Sexist

Much has been written lately about women’s speech patterns, and whether certain verbal behaviors like uptalk (a.k.a. valleyspeak), vocal fry (a.k.a. creak), and “sexy baby voice” are hurting their careers and preventing people from taking them seriously. According to Lake Bell, a woman who talks this way sounds like “a 12-year-old little girl that is submissive to the male species.” Much has also been written about how this policing of women’s speech patterns is totally, like, sexist. As Debbie Cameron, author of The Myth of Mars and Venus, writes on her blog Language: A Feminist Guide:

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article—mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence.

We admit, we’re guilty of this policing ourselves. We have whiled away many an hour complaining about the vocal fry on certain podcasts and radio shows.  We have rolled our eyes at young women who say their name on their voicemail like it’s a question mark. We always assumed that these verbal tics — turning every declarative, even one’s own name, into a question; frying at the end of every sentence; using more words when fewer would do; etc. — made women sound insecure, hesitant, and submissive. Or, at the very least, these tics served as a distraction from the content of what they were saying. And as the mothers of daughters — we each have a seven-year-old girl — we certainly don’t want them to be seen this way by the world. Who would, right? We consider it our responsibility, as feminists, to raise daughters who speak with confidence and authority.

And yet. This roundtable on women’s speech, hosted by Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air, made us realize that maybe the problem isn’t the way young women speak. Maybe the problem instead is the fact that people automatically associate qualities like submission and insecurity with stereotypically female speech patterns. And maybe if  young women try to change the way they talk, people won’t have a reason to change their shitty sexist attitudes about women. If you change your behavior to fit in, you won’t change the way people think. As Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert told Terry Gross:

You only get change by not allowing it to be a problem to you. And I think this is something that has been huge in all of the years that people have been studying minority dialects. African-American vernacular English is a very rich dialect, and yet little kids are told they better not speak that if they want to succeed in the world. So the question is, do you knuckle under to that or do you try to make the world change a little bit? And certainly, that’s how I feel about a lot of the women’s styles is that if we all cower under and say do what I did in 1973 [consciously speak lower to be taken seriously], well then, what’s going to change?

Oh, and another thing: Most young people don’t have a problem with the way young women speak. They don’t think that vocal fry makes someone sound submissive — in fact, one study found that women in sororities use creaky voice to establish dominance and to get new recruits to do as they’re told. Eckert continues:

I was shocked the first time I heard this style on NPR. I thought, “Oh my god, how can this person be talking like this on the radio?” Then I played it for my students, and I said, “How does she sound?” and they said, “Good, authoritative.” And that was when I knew that I had a problem. … That I was not a part of the generation that understood what that style means. … There’s been a change and those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old.

According to journalist Jessica Grose, former host of Slate’s podcast the DoubleX Gabfest and another Fresh Air guest, most of her vocal fry was actually the result of her attempting to control her upspeak. She once sought help from a  from a voice coach in an effort to make herself sound more professional, after receiving so many complaints about her valley girl voice on the podcast. But focusing so much on what was wrong with her voice felt suffocating, Grose told Terry Gross:

I felt like it was blunting my emotional range. I felt when I was self-conscious about my voice it lost that expressive, connective quality … There was something lost when I wasn’t being myself, whatever that is.

And it’s not just the way women speak that is policed — it’s what they say, and how much they say, too. Women who want to “get ahead” in their careers, or simply to be taken more seriously in general, are often told that it’s girly to say something like, “Would you like to go to lunch?” and that it’s infinitely more manly — and, the assumption goes, more powerful and respectable — to say, “Let’s go to lunch.” Use fewer words, women are told. Don’t be so cooperative and communicative. Except people don’t actually say, “Don’t be so cooperative and communicative.” Instead they say, “Don’t be so compliant and chatty.” You see what happened there? Worthy qualities are turned into something submissive and girly, just because women are more likely to exhibit these qualities than men.

Because, yes, women do, on average, have different communication styles from men. Whether this is nature or nurture, the debate rages on — a little bit of nature but largely nurture, we think — but it begins as early as elementary school, and perhaps even earlier. Studies have shown that female friendships in elementary school are based more on equality and cooperation, with the girls valuing trust and communication over hierarchy or dominance. Meanwhile, boys tend to socialize in bigger groups with strict hierarchies of dominance — in fact, boys may actually interrupt a certain activity if they fear it may affect their place in the hierarchy.

Sure, it would be nice if our culture treated boys and girls with equality, so that perhaps school children wouldn’t feel so pigeon-holed to act a certain way with their same-sex friends. But wouldn’t it also be nice if we gave equal respect to the way girls and boys, and men and women, communicate?

That all said, we might not be sexist, but we’re still old. We’re in our forties, and this sort of change in attitude doesn’t come naturally. It’s really hard not to cringe when a woman use valleyspeak in a business meeting! It’s one thing to wave a banner for equal pay, but to join a march for vocal fry and uptalk? That’s a cause that’s a little harder to get behind. But we can, at the very least, stop marching for the other side. We can, at the very least, stop telling women that they sound girly when they talk the way they talk.

So what should we tell girls about how to be strong?
Top 10 Things We Will Tell Our Daughters About Sex



27 Comments

  1. I wish that things like hearing uptalk and endless meaningless buzzwords and phrases didnt get to me. Sadly, it does. I also detest hearing people say ‘literally’ or when the Americans say it as ‘liderally’.
    uptalk and vocal fry have been around for a great many years but todays online net centric based morons are now able to keep up with the latest bullshit quicker which means irritating words and phrases are easier to hear.
    I detest loud common idiots and their inane blah blah blah crap.. it as if they need to be heard so badly and they are so desperate to fit in that they cant help it.
    It isnt about being a certain age – its about being susceptible to peoples bullshit.

  2. Men are also chastised for using uptalk and vocal fry, and I’d like to see the statistics demonstrating that women are punished for it more often than are men. ‘Uptalk’ is a sign of timidness (interrogative intonation rather than firm declaration), whilst ‘vocal fry’ is a sign of laziness (insufficient wind pushed through to properly vibrate the vocal folds).

  3. When it comes to speech patterns, being from the south I have plenty of dislikes concerning how other people speak. While I think vocal fry and up speak appear to be very female trend speech patterns, I can’t stand the “Michigan nasal” or the “New York City aggressive throat and nose” sound. The faster paced speech I here from locals in the north makes them sound shifty and untrustworthy to a southerner used to a relaxed drawl. To a northerner I’m sure I sound slow and dumb, but that’s just the way I speak. It’s hard to step back and judge a whole person and not focus on te easy stereotypes. I think this is not just a female or minority issue even though it seems more prevelent in the radio show complainers (I hold a fairly low regard for the stereotype of people that call in to radio shows as well, but I’m working to overcome that instinct). Speech patterns will inevitably blend as people have access to each other more and more, because mimicry outweighs most desire to be individual in society if you are trying to socialize. One day we’ll all just sound like the NPR guy/gal.

  4. I’m all for supporting women any way I can, but is this really the thing women want all of us to get behind? Is this some new, wonderful expression of women at their best, or is it just a shitty-sounding fad or trend? Is every single trend that’s more prevalent among women inherently worthy? Am I never allowed to dislike anything simply because it’s women who are exhibiting the trait? Seems a pretty shabby argument to me.

    I don’t consider myself a racist, though I believe Ebonics takes relativism to a ridiculous extreme. Saying “Can I ax you something?” sounds less educated. Is that because society is racist? Well yes–it’s because institutional racism has historically resulted in worse schools and less education for African Americans. But rather than canonize “ax” as a valid alternative to “ask”–which is silly and also beyond unrealistic… why not actually put the effort into fixing the inequity in the education system, rather than pretend that all grammar and pronunciation is equal?

    Similarly, women may engage in upspeak and croaking because they’re not getting noticed as much as men in meetings, or in the classroom or in social settings, or whatever. I’d much prefer that we fix THAT–fix the root cause–instead of pretending that people walking around sounding like a creaky gate is perfectly fine and that we’re sexists if we think otherwise.

    1. You make some very good points. I don’t feel it’s sexist for someone to point out that creaky voices annoy them. They annoy me, and I’m a woman. I don’t, however, think that quality of voice should be considered a factor of professionalism, because it is such a varied thing depending on culture. There’s a difference between personal preference and telling someone they’re not qualified for a professional position because you don’t like their vocal patterns.

    2. You say you’d rather fix the root problem, instead of pretending that croaking is perfectly fine. But isn’t the point that if we fix the root problem (i.e. the fact that people still find “girly” or “feminine” voices less powerful/convincing/intelligent), then we won’t give a shit whether a woman croaks or not?

  5. There’s a lot I disagree with here, beginning with the idea that male language isn’t policed. Men get fired or publicly pilloried for saying the wrong thing all the time. If you’re a straight, white male, there’s about a thousand things you’re not allowed to say.

    1. That sounds like you’re talking more about content rather than style. Can you give us some examples? Also, are you saying men get policed just as much as women, or would you grant that even if both genders sometimes are criticized for the WAY they speak, it happens to women MUCH MORE than it does to men?

      1. Yes, I was talking about content more than style. One example that jumps to mind – just saw Mad Max – is Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson did 2 things wrong the night he wrecked his career: he committed a dangerous crime that could have killed multiple people, and he said bad words.

        We all know which of those two things wrecked his career. I’m not defending Mad Mel, just pointing out the level of priority we give to language-policing men: “HE SAID BAD WORDS! And drove after sixteen drinks I guess.”

        I can’t answer that last part. I don’t know how much shit women get for their tones of voice. I can’t imagine it’s much. I’ve never seen a woman actually called out for being a loudmouth. It’s not policing if you do it to yourself, it’s self-consciousness, and honestly I think a lot of people could use a bit more of it.

        1. Actually I would say that men get language-policed far, far more strictly than women do. Women may get micro-aggressed for transgressive speech, but men lose their livelihoods over it.

          I could probably name a dozen men off the top of my head whose lives got turned upside down by things they said. I can’t think of any women who had that happen.

          1. You’re talking about content (saying racist/homophobic/sexist/stupid things) and in this post we’re talking about style (not the content of what’s said, but HOW it’s said: with upspeak, vocal fry, baby-voice, etc). In this context, the assumed standard/ideal is masculine styles of speech, with women being punished/criticized for not measuring up — which is the problem. So if we’re just talking stylistically, women lose. Now, if we’re talking content (which, again, we weren’t in this post), then we’re pretty sure both men and women, if they’re saying racist/sexist/homophobic/stupid things, are both at risk of having their speech policed — as they should be. We’re not sure who gets policed more harshly, but if you think it’s men, could it be that’s because men say more racist/sexist/homophobic/stupid things publicly than women do?

          2. Yes, it could be that men are just worse about saying offensive things than women. I just thought of one, by the way: Paula Deen.

            As for policing womens’ inflections, I never see it, which is why I hesitate to call it “policing.” Women modifying their own tones or other people silently judging isn’t “policing” in my mind. But people sure do judge. I do. I’m pretty sound sensitive – easily annoyed by sound. It only takes a little noise to keep me up at night, background music drives me nuts after a while… yes, I consciously have an opinion on what a woman should ideally sound like. Attractiveness-wise, the quality of a woman’s voice and the way she uses it matters to me. That’s probably more the sort of thing you mean.

          3. Johnny, it’s not people silently judging, it’s hordes of people writing into radio shows to vent their anger at women’s voices. The people behind the awesome podcast 99% Invisible got so sick of the emails that they drafted this (hilarious) blanket response for them:

            “Hello. You’ve written in to voice your dislike of one of our female reporter’s voices. You’re not alone. We have a filter set up that automatically sends these types of emails into a folder labeled zero priority. We’ll review this folder and consider the complaints within, well, never. Amazingly, we don’t even have a folder for our complaints about the male voices on our show because we’ve never gotten one. Isn’t that strange? We think so. Anyway, hope you can continue to enjoy our free podcast somehow. And if you can’t, there are plenty of shows that don’t feature women’s voices at all.”

          4. Ha… didn’t know they did that, but I’m not surprised – it’s the internet. That’s not just voices. A woman can’t put forth any part of herself online without being told she’s either bangable or not bangable by the anonymous hordes, and that sucks.

            … but, I mean, the internet is a nasty place, we all know that. How often does the average woman experience this in daily life?

          5. But this goes beyond regular Internet nastiness. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times this topic has come up at dinner parties I’ve attended lately! And it’s not just anonymous comments on the internet, either — it’s people writing letters and making phone calls to radio stations, too. Normally I don’t pay much attention to inane internet nastiness, but this goes beyond that.

            Also, if you listen to the full episode of Fresh Air, you’ll hear about how often this comes up for women in regular life, too — like, a woman interviewing a man for business week and him saying, condescendingly, “You sound like my granddaughter.”

          6. I’ll take your word for it. I would never insult or criticize a woman about the sound of her voice, (or anything, really, unless severely provoked) so it’s hard for me to imagine guys doing that IRL. But like I said, I do like certain lady-voices better than others, so I shouldn’t doubt the phenomenon.

          7. I think the reason I balked at this is because, where I live, women are loud as hell and swear like sailors. It’s like they have no idea what they sound like. No one ever taught them that not everyone wants to hear them. Just the other night I was driving home, and I noticed that from within my car I could hear these LOUD female voices – but not male voices – over ambient city noise, my own engine, the stereo:

            “BLAH BLAH SEX!!! BLAH BLAH!”

            “YEAH COOL WE’LL TOTALLY DO THAT THIS WEEKEND!”

            So, I’ve personally observed the contrary: a total degradation of female self-awareness regarding one’s own voice quality, whereas I’ve observed men (rightfully) get MUCH, MUCH more careful about their speech.

            … then again, I suppose you could argue that’s selection bias: as a noise-sensitive person I extremely notice the loud ladies, whereas I probably don’t notice all the quiet, voice-policed types.

          8. That’s interesting. I feel like a lot of it comes down to culture. In my extended family, everyone is polite and quiet spoken and so are my friends so I don’t apparently know the same type of women you know. I have encountered a number of loudmouths in my life, of course, but never noticed it limited to one gender or the other.

          9. A lot, actually. The same segment of the population that fixates solely on women’s bangability or lack thereof online also does it in real life.

          10. It was mainly men in the movie industry who decided not to cast Mel Gibson in most movies after his anti-Semitic outburst. In the real world, both genders experience consequences for things they say, but again, we are talking about style, not content. I’m puzzled by your stance, because I also know women who have gotten into huge trouble for things they said. One recent news example that pops to mind is the school principal at a graduation who started to call out some black people for the auditorium and said something disparaging about “look, all the black people are leaving.” The backlash was huge and she had major consequences. That kind of thing happens all the time. I haven’t heard anyone else besides you trying to claim that men are somehow held to a higher standard of what they say.
            ‘s

          11. I haven’t heard anyone besides me claim that either, but then again this is the first time I’ve ever had this discussion. I’m sure it happens to women too, but I hear a lot more about men getting ruined for speech infractions.

            Anyway, my mind’s not made up on this. Maybe the media just reports it more when it happens to men. Maybe it’s my imagination and I only pay attention to news stories where it happens to men. Or, ya know… maybe men are way more language policed than women are.

            In the last 25 years, we’ve gotten very politically correct. Most of the time that’s a good thing – I date the official start of the PC movement at Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill debacle, which sparked a national discussion on gender/sexuality/power in the workplace. The PC movement was a response to that type of outrageously rapey conduct by high-ranking men. That was gross. That needed to change. Not complaining about the PC movement.

            … but let’s not kid ourselves about who PC speech policing targets. It was initially a response to male privilege and power abuse, and accordingly men have always been in the crosshairs of the PC speech police – not women. The PC movement has always been about men cleaning up their act (which is a good thing) – but not women.

            And it’s gotten to the point where the AVERAGE man – not just the abusively powerful man – has to be reeeeeaaaal careful about what he says.

            My point is that feminists and PC speech cops won this round. It was a hard fought battle, but they won. Blow struck, patriarchy rocked to its foundations. They got their way: you can’t go around slapping ass or making crude comments anymore, and that’s a good thing. But it’s the result of 25 years of speech policing directed specifically at men, not the general population.

            … so when someone tries to sell me on the idea that women are actually the policed group, I’m like, “eh, I dunno…”

          12. … I know, I know, content vs. tone again. I don’t think it’s that big a difference – it’s still one gender telling the other gender how they should be communicating.

            But again: women telling men how they should communicate is textbook PC protocol, but men telling women how they should communicate is offensive and directly contrary to PC ideals? Nuh-uh. That’s a two-way street.

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