I’ll Take ‘Uptalk’ Stigma for $200

Behind the scenes of the longest-running gameshow “Jeopardy!” in December 2011. Image courtesy of Flickr

Not all language is created equal. Although Americans speak more than 380 different languages, according to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, how people speak — their accent, vocabulary or “uptalk” — can influence how co-workers and bosses perceive them.

The term “uptalk” refers to a manner of speaking that emphasizes high-pitched intonation at the end of sentences, as if the speaker is asking a question. This idea is particularly harmful for women, who are criticized for this behavior more often than men. The opposite of uptalk is vocal fry, which is characterized by a low-pitched, creaky voice.

A few years ago, Thomas Linneman, a sociology professor at the College of William & Mary, studied 100 “Jeopardy!” episodes and found that women uptalked one and a half times more than male contestants. However, the study found that successful women contestants used uptalk more than unsuccessful women while the opposite was true of men.

Outside the game show arena, the stigma of uptalk and vocal fry can lead hiring managers to believe that these women are less competent than other candidates, according to a 2014 study published in the PLOS ONE journal. This despite the fact that women may employ uptalk for a variety of reasons, including to appear more likeable, Linneman said.

On the other hand, he said when women try using a more confident tone, they are perceived as egotistical. After he published his study, a five-time female “Jeopardy!” winner contacted Linneman and said she was “berated” in voicemails by people who said she sounded arrogant on the show for speaking in an authoritative tone.

“When women don’t use uptalk, there’s evidence that they’re stigmatized,” Linneman said. “It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”

Vocal fry and uptalk are not new phenomena. Researchers observed these speaking patterns in the ’70s, but it is becoming more common for people to seek out speech therapists or throat specialists to help change the tone of voice because of societal scrutiny.

“It’s a learned behavior, but I don’t think people purposely are trying to learn it,” said Lee Akst, director of the Johns Hopkins Voice Center. “It is oftentimes subconsciously emulated as people pick up speech patterns of the people around them.”

Those who speak with a standard American-English accent also have a sizeable advantage in the workplace. According to data published in 2014, researchers at Cornell University found Americans have a more negative reaction to messages, companies and products that are advertised by someone with a non-native accent or who appears to be a new immigrant. This leads hiring managers to overlook job candidates who might have creative ideas, but cannot articulate them in an American way.

There is no data to support the idea that job candidates who speak with an accent, vocal fry or uptalk are less intelligent than people who do not, but these workers are often at a disadvantage in the American workplace, even though numerous research studies have demonstrated the positive impact of a diverse workforce on a business. 

Joe Dixon is a Diversity Executive editorial intern. Comment below or email editor@diversity-executive.com.