RVA Family: Uptalk with a side of vocal fries

Vocal fry and uptalk and other “girly” vocal tics are maybe just how we speak, OK?

Hi, my name is Hayley, and there’s no right way for me to talk. There isn’t a right way for you either, if you’re of the female persuasion.

Sometimes I uptalk. Uptalking–that is, speaking with an upward inflection–is, I’m told, a terrible thing. I’m supposedly doing a feminist disservice to women, not to mention my daughter, by making us all sound unintelligent. When I employ uptalk I probably sound like I’m asking a question when I’m not, rather than stating I know something. I sound weak, hesitant, maybe even simpering. I don’t sound powerful when I speak with an upward inflection.

The obvious answer here is to lower my voice, right?


Apparently consciously lowering my voice where I might normally use an upward inflection is equally bad! The thing is, when I consciously lower my voice where I might normally uptalk, my voice sometimes catches. It’s what’s known as “vocal fry” to some, “creaky voice” to others.

According to NPR host and Slate podcaster Bob Garfield (as quoted in an article written for Slate by Amanda Hess), lowering my female voice to a more flat, male-style of speaking, is “mindless” too. He also uses the terms “annoying,” “really annoying,” and “vulgar.”  I don’t find it annoying in others, in fact I find it to be an attractive vocal tic, which totally outs me as a young person, since that demographic finds it appealing! But I do! I never knew there was a name for it until, like everything else women do, people decided it was annoying and needed to stop.1

I already have a voice that’s in the lower-middle range. It isn’t as high as the voices of some of my peers, though it’s not in the lower-lower sphere either. This can be a problem because it means I might not sound feminine in the traditionally expected manner. I’ve taught enough classes to have been able to compare the million little ways I’m received depending on how I present myself, and my vocal pattern makes a difference…and uptalk helps.

I have employed uptalk for so long when I’m “on the clock” professionally because people seem more receptive to me when I do it. By uptalking when I’m at work, I’m making an effort to be approachable, understanding, and most importantly, not a know-it-all. I could be these things without uptalk of course, but this approach helps convey it more immediately. Uptalk implies a certain amount of hesitation, which implies being the opposite of a know-it-all. I use it as a way to get people to be receptive to my help, which is sometimes a tough sell when I know more than they do and am often younger. My hesitation is a courtesy and an attempt to not make them feel embarrassed that I, a much younger person, am helping them do something that’s probably easy for me and hard for them. If I don’t uptalk, I’m more of a Teacher with a capital T, and less of a kind person who’s just here to help you, no judgements!

Does this do all women a grave disservice? Yeah, probably. But it does me a service right now, in the moment, at work. It helps me help others in a way that helps them feel comfortable. It’s already hard enough to ask someone much younger for help, so I might as well present that service in a way that’s perceived as non-threatening.

I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t–if I have a lower vocal tic that’s common to my demographic, then I’m seen by people like Garfield as a piece of female garbage trying to be a man (even though that’s just the way I talk) or, as is pointed out on a recent episode of This American Life as another possibility, a teenage stoner dude. But if I use a higher vocal tic as a way to be unassuming, then I’m an empty-headed ninny.

Today it’s uptalk and vocal fry. Tomorrow it will be something else that’s pinpointed as the Problem With Young Women These Days. What will our children be saying ten years from now, and with what vocal affectations? What patterns of speech am I going to find silly or confusing or off-putting in those whippersnappers? If when my daughter is a teenager the vocal mode of the day is to have a heightened lisp, am I going to say it sounds, to borrow from Garfield, “repulsive”? I hope not. I also hope I don’t find myself telling her not to uptalk, or creak her voice, or do anything that people find offensive just for the sake of being easy on the ears of people who are going to judge her no matter what she does. Every generation finds the next one baffling and wrong. Add in the fact that to be feminine is to be lesser-than in our society, and a generation of young women who employ lower-voiced vocal tics is a recipe for an angry mob of men. Like, how dare we, right?

So maybe the problem isn’t, shockingly, with women and the way they talk. Maybe the problem is with everyone who has a problem with every possible way women talk (and dress, and make money, and choose to have children, and take care of their bodies…I could go on and on…). Maybe, just maybe, they’re the ones doing the greatest disservice of all.

So, kids of today who will be young professionals tomorrow: you go ahead and employ that crazy clown laugh at the end of sentences that, for some inexplicable reason, you all will find sexy and attractive. You do you, and I’ll be here with my voice that is sometimes a pebbly creaking thing, sometimes a higher-lilting uptalk, and 100 percent me, in all my female glory. I’m not going to “correct” that. Because it doesn’t need correcting.

Photo by: tjmwatson

  1.  Men do it too, but they can get away with it, apparently. 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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