Since Emily was in middle school, I’ve noticed that young women use a speech pattern I call the “perpetual question.” I know you’ve heard it. It’s as if someone makes a statement, but she ends her flat, almost raspy speech with a slightly uptilted tone, asking a question instead.
I’ve often wondered why girls talk this way. Maybe they got in on the beginning of the Valley Girl trend. Maybe they are trying to sound soft, or maybe they don’t want to offend anyone by being brash. They might be trying to sound less intelligent than they really are, or to sound “cute.” Maybe they think that asking questions makes them less a threat to the male of the species. Regardless of the reason, I’ve thought these speech patterns keep people from taking girls and women seriously.
I began thinking that I was too judgmental. Maybe I should lighten up. But then, a couple of months ago, I got trapped in the construction debacle on I-70, and I sat in traffic for quite some time. I listened to a story on NPR about “vocal fry.” I was shocked to know that what I have derisively been calling “perpetual questions” are actually well-recognized “things” called “uptalk” and “vocal fry.”
It seems as if someone started a trend of speaking really quickly, really flatly, and really questioningly, and it caught on, as if uptalk and vocal fry became the cool thing to do, sort of like interspersing “like” after every third word. I found myself in good company: “Time magazine devoted a column to the mannerism called vocal fry, noting a study that found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: ‘Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.’” …” (Naomi Wolf at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/vocal-fry-strong-female-voice).
Neither NPR nor “The Guardian” addresses where or how vocal fry and uptalk started. I don’t have these particular speech patterns, and neither does Emily, so I wondered just how they developed. I remembered how I was taught to speak – and write – and then I knew my failure at vocal fry and uptalk was, thankfully, my mother’s fault.
My mother was the closest thing we had to a speech coach in Thayer for years. Until I was a sophomore, she was the only high school English teacher, and she did all the things an English teacher does, as well as what journalism, speech, and drama teachers do. She taught writing, she directed one-act plays, and she sponsored the school newspaper. She sponsored the speech team, spending hours listening to those of us who wanted to try our hands at duet acting, poetry, drama, informative and extemporaneous speaking, and even news reading.
I can remember her saying, “Stand up straight!” “Remember that you are talking to the back of the room!” “Sound as if you know what you are talking about!” And we did what she said.
In the same way, she told us write positively. None of this “I feel” or “I think” stuff was good enough! “Say what you mean!” “Be direct!” “Don’t waffle!”
So of course, that’s how I taught my daughter. And it’s how I teach my writing classes. I rarely find “I feel” or “I think” in boys’ writing, but I correct it frequently in my female students’
papers. “Make strong statements!,” I preach. “Don’t ask questions!” “Direct writing is powerful writing!”
I try to assist my students in developing strong speech patterns, too. Males and females use the dreaded “like” equally, and truly, they don’t even hear themselves say it. I don’t hear vocal fry or uptalk often from my students, but when I do, I sound just like my mother. “Say what you mean! Talk to the back of the room!”
As the article in “The Guardian” points out, uptalk and vocal fry make people take young women less seriously. So girls, lose the uptalk and vocal fry and do what my mother said! Be positive! Make statements! You will like the results, and I will be forever grateful.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.