Fresh Air on "policing" young women's voices

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"From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We 'Policing' Young Women's Voices?", Fresh Air (NPR), 7/23/2015:

Journalist Jessica Grose is no stranger to criticism of her voice. When she was co-hosting the Slate podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, she would receive emails complaining about her "upspeak" — a tendency to raise her voice at the end of sentences. Once an older man she was interviewing for an article in Businessweek told her that she sounded like his granddaughter.

"That was the first moment I felt [my voice] was hurting my career beyond just irritating a couple listeners," Grose tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Grose sought help from a voice coach in an effort to make herself sound more professional, but Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert argues that women shouldn't have to change their voices to suit society.

Eckert points out that the complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry (a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice) ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. "People are busy policing women's language and nobody is policing older or younger men's language," Eckert tells Gross.

Grose and Eckert join speech pathologist Susan Sankin for a conversation about upspeak, vocal fry and how women's voices are changing — and whether that's a problem.

Listen to the conversation:

Or read the transcript here.

I haven't had a chance to listen to the show, so more on this later. But note that "speech pathologist Susan Sankin" was featured on the show that prompted Sameer ud Dowla Khan's "Open Letter to Terry Gross".



  1. Marie said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 12:26 am

    Well, at least Terry challenged the SLP on whether or not creaky voice causes damage. Her response is pretty weak: she says she heard ENTs say it can cause damage. I teach voice disorders classes for an SLP program, but have an M.A. in linguistics. I run into this misconception all the time and it drives me crazy. It is so disappointing to hear this from someone out there practicing.

  2. GH said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 3:11 am

    "People are busy policing women's language and nobody is policing older or younger men's language," Eckert tells Gross.

    … except for whether you "sound gay," as recently discussed.

  3. Nerdcore › Moar Links from the End of the World said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 3:26 am

    […] Fresh Air on "policing" young women's voices, related: Male vocal fry […]

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

    The conversation veered back and forth a bit unhelpfully between the specific issue of voices in a radio/podcasting environment (where both Ms. Gross and Ms. Grose had relevant experience) and voices in a more general set of social contexts. Speaking effectively for radio (especially when unscripted) is a fairly specific mode of vocal performance that some people do better than others and almost everyone who does well has had to learn. There are lots of different "radio voices," depending on the genre of programming, but the seemingly-"natural" style perhaps more common for hosts of NPR public-affairs shows is in its own way just as artificial and stylized as the more obviously unnatural conventions of top 40 DJ's or baseball play-by-play announcers. The extent to which males who natively speak with a non-prestige accent can get work in radio without self-consciously changing their speech may vary (the BBC is allegedly no longer so uniform in requiring "BBC English"), but it remains an issue. Perhaps female voices in a radio-etc. environment attract different criticisms or are subject to different pressures than male voices, of course. But I daresay there aren't too many male NPR personalities who speak on air with the full-on young-California-stoner/surfer-dude variety of English exemplified by e.g. the Sean Penn character in Fast Things at Ridgemont High and subsequent pop-culture uses.

  5. RJB said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    I teach at a business school, and am often advising MBA and PhD students on how to present to a group of students or businessfolk. I often show my students Taylor Mali's "To Speak With Conviction" , which equates uptalk with a lack of conviction. Is this misguided?

    [(myl) Yes. Also this.]

    I thought the speech pathologist on Fresh Air made a good point when she was booed for saying uptalk is a "problem." Her response was that clients come to her for help because they feel like they are making a poor impression. Her first assignment is for the client to introduce themselves, and that they often sound way more uncertain than they want to when they say their name ("I'm Rob?")

    The norm in classroom and boardroom settings seems to be that uptalking is appropriate when you are asking a question, or to create a little suspense and stave off interruptions (e.g., "so we collected data from 12 locations….and we found a strong effect of X and Y") with a rising pitch on locations, but a drop in pitch (with conviction!) on 'and Y'.

    I figure since I am giving advice on speaking, it's fine for me to make normative claims, rather than just describing what people actually do. But I don't want my normative claims to be based on positive claims that misrepresent how people actually speak in these settings. Am I too stuck in 1973 (or some other year) or basing my norms on some peculiar sample? I don't think of uptalk as a gender issue, since I have plenty of 35-year-old executives who do it when they are struggling with material. But perhaps the norms in these settings are set by men who value seeming confident.

    [(myl) In conversations where there's a striking power asymmetry — bosses and subordinates, teachers and students, doctors and patients — it's generally the more powerful conversational partner who uses final rises to a greater extent, and those final rises are interpreted as controlling the interaction by eliciting or forcing responses. ]

  6. JD said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    And yet here is another one…

  7. Bloix said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    The hilarious thing about Susan Sankin is that she herself has a disfavored speech style that identifies her as Long Island Jewish. To use a slur, she's jappy. "Becoss" for "because," the slightly hardened g's at the end of ing ("sing-ging"), and a host of other features. Sixty or seventy years ago, she'd be going to a speech pathologist herself in order to learn to sound waspy enough to get a job as NYC school teacher.

  8. ryanwc said,

    July 28, 2015 @ 1:41 am

    (if this is a double-post, I apologize. My posts seem to disappear upon submission unless I click "notify me of new posts.")
    I think the difference between the examples given by RJB and Victor is telling, and leads back to RJB's analysis. When a dominant speaker uses upspeak, it's because she's issuing a declarative statement with the tonality of a question in an ironic way. It's not really a question because it has only one answer, or because the speaker's response to a wrong answer hangs over the conversation:
    >You're going to the meeting tomorrow? [implying 'or am I going to make you go?")

    When a non-dominant speaker uses upspeak, they are making an actual, unironic question out of a declarative statement, like in a memorable Fallows (I think) piece in the Atlantic about an undergraduate leading a campus tour who was "so polite she asked us her name":
    >Hi, my name is Jenny?

    In other words, non-dominant upspeakers ask for the listener's assent to things that they should feel comfortable asserting, but don't. Rather than forcing assent, they often seem emotionally needy, requiring more positive feedback than one can give.

    And inevitably, this maps onto pre-existing male/female power imbalances and also onto critiques of power imbalances. Criticizing upspeak may well be blaming the victim.

    But ultimately, in English, it's in the firmware of our perceptions of speech (I don't say hard-wired, because I don't know how other languages mark questions.) As long as raised pitch at the end of a sentence is the primary marker of questions in English, upspeak by anyone who has no power over you is going to sound weak and needy. So there is indeed logic behind encouraging the 'victim' to avoid sounding submissive.

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