In the midst of a social media crackdown on the most vapid sounding language trends, the last thing I ever thought I would do is defend their worth. Nor do I wish to fall into the trap of defending women for what are admittedly irritating habits in speech. But here I am. And it isn’t only because men aren’t receiving the same language shaming these last few weeks, though that is in fact a big bone of contention. It is also because these language trends enrich our social vocabulary in important ways! Read on for the top 3 reasons I will continue to use mitigating language, uptalk and vocal fry when I speak. (Though perhaps not all in one sentence.)
For three weeks, I have been reading articles about women, and directed only at women, about how our speech habits are holding us back in the professional world, and in some cases these articles were even written by successful women. First I came across this article advising against using the word “just” too much. Initially I supported the idea, because women in the business world probably do self-efface and apologize too much for everything, including their own success in an effort to come across as less threatening. Here is another blog article supporting the idea that we as a gender overuse the word just. And who better to give advice to women about how to be successful than a successful business woman, in fact a former google executive!? But then I decided that removing the word ‘just’ altogether would probably be disastrous for society. And then I got angry that no one counts words that men might overuse, and writes shaming articles to call men out on how they are standing in the way of their own success because of their gender-specific linguistic choices. But I will (deep breaths) come back to the gender discussion, because there are many nuances to the topic.
The first topic at hand is the word ‘just,’ which is a form of mitigating language. Mitigating language is designed to soften a blow, or make delivering bad news a little less harsh. Also it is associated with a polite way to address a superior in many cases. Notice that I am staying gender neutral. Mitigating language can be extremely helpful in relating touchy, volatile or potentially offensive information. Here are some popular catch phrases that I would consider mitigating language and some of their functions.
1. Just in case, just so you know, just checking
a. Implies deference, and also respect for the other person’s ability/capacity/intelligence
2. Like, you know (alone or in combination)
a. Serves primarily as a buffer before saying something that might be hard to hear.
b. Gives the listener time to process or prepare for the shoe to drop.
3. On the off chance
a. Signals to the listener that the speaker already thought it unlikely, which can be self-preserving or help the listener save face depending on context.
Does it sometimes sound apologetic? Probably. Is it always appropriate? No! Mitigating language is, however, a form of social lubricant, without which we might too often find ourselves in confrontational situations. This is useful for any person who has a boss. So if we tell women to remove this word, thus is born a fun catch-22 – sound confident by eliminate mitigating language and see that promotion sooner, but at the risk of being chastised for sounding “bossy.” This leaves us (women?) forever on the pendulum of over-correcting, never finding that porridge speech equivalent in the middle that’s juhhhst right.
I have my own reasons for thinking “just” is a four-letter-word, and for that matter so is “easy.” When someone is in a teaching, parenting, or managing position those two words should be used maybe never because all they do is cause the learner to feel slow and stupid. An evolved learner might recognize these words as crutches their teacher uses when he or she is frustrated and out of ideas how to rephrase the lesson, but most learners are feeling too vulnerable to be in touch with anything other than their own failure in that moment, so it falls to the teacher to be aware of their own use of language and its implications.
Then someone posted an article about uptalk, also known as valley-girl speak, upspeak, or rising terminal. I might be a fan of the movie “Clueless,” but I don’t actually have conversations that sound like that. So ‘Sure,’ I thought ‘get rid of it!’ And then I started hearing it among family members, and noticed my best friend using it, and oh the horror, I even heard myself doing it! So I did some deep reflecting and found that there are some really worthwhile reasons to use uptalk. In fact, a well placed bit of uptalk could save your relationship with a spouse or co-worker (or at least prevent a misunderstanding).
1. Uptalk is a way of creating a conversational comma:
a. Subtext “Don’t interrupt me, I’m not finished expressing my thought.”
i. Listener should not interject their own fully-formed thoughts, because what comes next could change their mind, or add vital information to the discussion at hand.
2. Uptalk can be used by a speaker to be sure the audience is still engaged instead of daydreaming:
a. Subtext “Are you with me?”
b. Subtext “Do you understand?”
i. Listener on phone should usually respond “uhuh, uhmmm”, in person silent nodding or eye-contact might be enough.
3. Uptalk can inject enthusiasm into an otherwise boring story:
a. Lilting tones of voice keep your listener from wandering off mentally, since we have the attention span of a fruit fly and it seems to be getting shorter and shorter! (Congratulations, by the way, on reading this far. You must not yet be converted to the Twitter-esque character consumption limitations descending tragically on future generations.)
b. No one ever complained (in my hearing) of an Australian or New Zealand accent, which is sing-song and riddled with delicious and sexy uptalk…
In conclusion, there are parts of the world where uptalk is a consistent part of the vocal sing-song and conversational vocabulary of expression and intonation, and the desire to label it as a sign of being vapid or even specific to a (female) gender is enraging me. I know that boys and men use uptalk as well!
The third article I came upon back in July, and perhaps the hardest vocal trend for me to defend is vocal fry, or vocal creak. The article implored young women to give up the vocal fry. It can happen with your first speaking of the day, pre-coffee, without any meaning behind it at all. It can happen accidentally if you run out of breath at the end of a sentence. As Jessica Grose commented in her recent NPR interview, it can happen as a result of over-correcting for uptalk. (Another shining example of the porridge being too hot, or too cold.) It can also happen because you’re tired. But I’ve observed it can also have meaning in certain context:
1. Vocal fry can convey exhaustion
a. Seeks sympathy nods, signals a need for support on a rough day
2. Can also convey boredom
a. Signal to change the topic, or be more engaging
3. Or can convey ennui, or world-weariness
a. Feeling hopeless or helpless, seeks comforting, or a desire to be asked “What’s wrong?”
This glottal vibration doesn’t have to mean anything, and if we spend our time modulating our breath, intonation and word choice, we the speaker and we the listener can be completely thrown off and distracted. I know I was when I did my YouTube hunt for examples of men using vocal fry and uptalk.
And that would be the real shame. The real shame would be if your listeners are so caught up in looking for uptalk, vocal fry, or counting the occurrence of the word “just” in your presentation that they are deaf to the content of your presentation. There is a brain phenomenon called inattentional blindness which is a kind of temporary blindness. This is illustrated brilliantly in this Smithsonian Magazine article, but of course you will all be brilliant instead of being tricked because I’ve prepared you in advance, so congratulations!
In a fit of outrage on behalf of my gender in the last few weeks, I found myself trolling YouTube in search of footage of well-respected men giving speeches or being interviewed to illustrate that men use these same vocal trends as well, but are not scrutinized for the way their voice peaks (Mr. George Bush, Mr. William F. Buckley) or creaks (Mr. Clinton). During this searching, I experienced the auditory version of inattentional blindness (perhaps it should be named inattentional deafness?) and realized that I had heard but not understood a single word. In my effort to notice language styles, intonations or count words I could not have told you what they were trying to explain or express. I long for an age when people can drop the filters relating to who is delivering the message and how, in favor of a respectful dialogue or dare I even dream – a discourse.
I do agree that it is annoying when voice and speech trends like this catch on like wildfire and lose their original purpose, hence my reluctance to champion them. But I also caution against the total elimination of them. Anything done to excess becomes irritating (even political correctness) but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. I for one am not ready to retire all signs of uptalk, mitigating language or even the occasional creak from my vocabulary. While stripping the world of all of these language habits might make some folks really happy, I think removing them entirely would potentially diminish or hamper our nuanced communication.
I wrote most of this on August 2nd, 2015. Then I wanted to tweak and edit, and my blog went dormant until today...There was yet another fantastic KQED radio show critiquing women for tentative speech, and I knew I had to put down my red pen and publish this post in all its imperfection. I thoroughly enjoyed the Amy Schumer bit on women apologizing as well.
I know I am not alone, and here is an article from December 2014 written by Marybeth Seitz-Brown stating many similar points, and stating them well and clearly, and strongly.