December 13, 2022
9 min read
Does this sound familiar? You’re speaking in front of an audience or conversing normally. You want to speak confidently. But, unintentionally, you turn a declarative sentence into what sounds like a question. This is called uptalk, and you might not even know you do it.
Don’t worry. This habit can be addressed with deliberate and careful practice. We’ll help you understand uptalk and walk you through some tips. (And, when you’re ready for detailed, personalized feedback, check out Yoodli. It’s a free AI speech coach that can help you reduce uptalk and other public speaking bad habits.)
We’ll answer each of these questions:
So, what is uptalk? Also known as upspeak or high-rising intonation (HRI), it’s the tendency to end a declarative sentence (or a clause in a sentence) with a rising inflection. You intend to make a statement; but, the rising pitch makes it sound more like a question.
Here are a few examples of uptalk to help you understand how it works. Notice that the clauses are declarative; they aren’t in a question structure. The question mark indicates the HRI at the end of the clause or sentence.
You can hear an example of HRI in the following video.
Downspeak and upspeak are opposites, just as the words imply. Downspeak entails a falling intonation at the end. Upspeak entails a rising intonation at the end. “The difference between them is whether they go down or up at the end.” “I’m sure that makes sense?”
Maybe you’ve heard of “valley girl speech.” It’s believed that this might be the origin of upspeak. “Valley girl speech” began around the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a speaking pattern commonly attributed to young, upper middle class women living in Southern California—specifically, in the San Fernando Valley.
Despite its potential origins, research shows that uptalk is just as common among men. According to linguist Mark Liberman, “George W. Bush used to do it all the time.” (And, George Bush isn’t even from the Valley!)
Although HRI is used by both sexes, women in particular might uptalk in professional settings as a defense mechanism. This could help them defend themselves against pushy superiors. It also could keep them from coming off as bossy or overwhelming—stereotypes that many professional women continue to fight against.
Here’s the thing: The use of uptalk usually isn’t deliberate. Most of the time, people don’t realize they’re doing it. So, when people use it, their purposes might be subconscious. They might use it to express uncertainty. Perhaps they use it to come across as less harsh and more inviting.
As you can see, HRI can be used—and can come across—in very different ways. Let’s take a closer look at the intentions (deliberate or subconscious) and the results of uptalk.
It’s good to understand why upspeak might be used. However, uptalk could hinder your prospects for promotion. While HRI often communicates politeness, it also conveys a need for consensus and a lack of confidence in what you’re saying. Excessive use of upspeak makes you come off as unprofessional. And, occasionally, it can make you sound unintelligent, which makes it harder for you to be taken seriously.
Here’s an example. If you end “I think we should go with Option B?” with a rising pitch, it sounds as though you’re uncertain of your choice and are looking to your listeners for guidance. This isn’t the best look on the job, especially when you’re trying to convince coworkers to take your suggestions.
Not only that, but, just as speaking flatly makes you sound boring, overusing uptalk has its drawbacks. It can be monotonous and confusing. You don’t want your amazing idea to be ignored just because you sent the wrong message with uptalk.
Now, let’s take that same sentence without upspeak: “I think we should go with option B.” That sounds self-assured! You didn’t ask a question; you made a declaration. It sounds like you’ve done your research and you have confidence in the decision you’re making. When you convey confidence, it’s easier for others to be assured in you.
Studies have demonstrated the adverse consequences of using HRI and vocal fry. Vocal fry is when you speak in a lower register so that your voice gives off a “frying” or “sizzling” sound. (Listen to an example of vocal fry.) This Time article discusses how speaking with uptalk and vocal fry can hurt your hiring prospects. Other research has found that women who speak with vocal fry are more likely to be perceived as “annoyingly adolescent” and “excruciating”—undermining their status at work.
As we’ve seen, uptalk commonly communicates uncertainty, whether consciously or unconsciously. But, it can convey positive things, too, and it can be beneficial at times.
Dr. Kami Anderson, an intercultural linguist, describes uptalk as a “lilt commonly used to soften communication.” By raising your tone at the end of sentences, upspeak allows you to come off as humble and personable. It invites the listener to offer their own (sometimes opposing) opinion. It’s sort of like saying what you think while, at the same time, asking what they think of it.
HRI, due to its lilting nature, implies the conversation is unfinished. Upspeak can be used to “hold the floor,” according to this article from Cambridge. When telling a narrative, ending sentences on a higher pitch communicates you aren’t done speaking. It’s a cue to listeners to keep listening.
More significantly, uptalk commands respect if used to include others in a conversation. Framing statements as questions demonstrates humility. It subconsciously indicates to conversation participants that it’s socially acceptable to ask clarifying questions or disagree.
As a result, upspeak isn’t necessarily a hindrance to promotion. A study examining business and academic meetings held in English in Hong Kong showed something interesting. Meeting chairs (the most powerful people in the room) used HRI to three to seven times more than their subordinates. This suggests that upspeak can demonstrate leadership qualities by leaving room for dissent.
So, should you use uptalk? It depends! Use your judgment to decide whether the situation calls for it. If you’re in a collaborative setting, use it to promote open dialogue. If you’re giving a presentation to your direct superior, limit upspeak to communicate confidence and self-assuredness.
Since uptalk can be used strategically, it’s not advisable to stop using it altogether. Rather, be thoughtful about when you use it. Become aware of when you use HRI, and make deliberate choices about using it.
The good news is that you can learn how to control your intonation and avoid upspeak in inappropriate contexts. Just follow these three steps, and you’ll be good to go.
The first thing to do when setting out to change your speech patterns is to believe that it’s possible to do it. The APA defines a growth mindset as an understanding that you can improve through hard work and perseverance, even when it’s hard. This means that, even if you constantly use uptalk (despite your best efforts not to), you’re capable of changing.
When starting your journey, make a realistic and measurable goal. Then, when you achieve it, you’ll be motivated to keep going. Here are a couple of examples:
Take mental notes of when you use uptalk. Analyze your usage:
Once you’re aware of your habits, you can deliberately choose when and how to use uptalk.
Start small. Prepare a presentation. Record yourself with Yoodli’s AI speech coach. You’ll be able to watch yourself back, and you’ll see a transcript of what you said. (Yoodli, which is free to use, also gives you feedback on other aspects of your word choices and delivery, such as filler words, weak words, and eye contact.)
Note where you’ve used uptalk in your practice presentation. Write these sentences down. Next, determine what you intend with each sentence. If you intend to use a softened, inviting tone, keep the upspeak or simply turn the sentence into a deliberate question.
For the sentences that shouldn’t be uptalk or questions, add a downward arrow at the end. This indicates that you should end the sentence with a falling pitch. Practice saying these sentences aloud without uptalk.
Remember: You’re not going to be perfect immediately. What matters is making steps in the direction you want to go.
Take small steps you feel comfortable with. Deliberately and consistently, practice your HRI awareness and usage. After you’ve practiced with Yoodli, get feedback from friends and family. They can let you know when you use uptalk and how it comes across to them.
With time, you’ll feel more and more confident with how you appear and sound, whether in a personal or professional setting. When you present yourself in the way you intend, you communicate effectively. It’s a win-win!
Getting better at speaking is getting easier. Record or upload a speech and let our AI Speech Coach analyze your speaking and give you feedback.