by Courtney Cronin
As “Jeopardy!” contestant Laura Ashby answered clue after clue correctly, her responses were marked by a very noticeable vocal quirk: a rise in inflection at the end of her sentences, making declarative statements sound like questions. Her nearly $40,000 run brought this vocal inflection, known as “upspeak,” to the social media spotlight and helped revive a sociological study on the phenomenon from a few years earlier.
In 2012, Thomas Linneman, a sociologist at William & Mary, studied “Jeopardy!” contestants and observed that women were more likely than men to use upspeak when answering questions. Perhaps more interestingly, he observed that female contestants in the lead are more likely to upspeak than their losing female counterparts, while men in the lead are much less likely to upspeak than men who are behind. Linneman suggests that, for women, upspeak is a method of compensating for success.
After reading about Laura Ashby and Linneman’s article, I started noticing examples of upspeak in my own life. As a law student, I hear upspeak in the classroom constantly. My peers use it most frequently when answering questions posed by professors – both when giving a direct answer (like a “Jeopardy!” contestant) and when there is no correct answer (like when a professor opens the floor for general discussion).
In some ways the use of upspeak in my law classes reflects the general understanding that the vocal inflection indicates doubt or uncertainty. For example, I remember hearing upspoken answers much more frequently at the beginning of the school year – when students were less confident in their mastery of the material.
Yet in my experience, the use of upspeak is not overtly gendered. Despite the reputation in popular culture of upspeak as the domain of women and “valley girls” it’s clear to me that both male and female classmates use the vocal inflection. Both trends mirror Linneman’s intuition: upspeak is used to compensate for success.
Law school is a unique place. Academically, it’s intense and competitive (Paper Chase, anyone?), but from a social perspective it’s tight knit. First year law students spend most of their time with a single, small section and gossip travels quickly. Whether male or female, most of us in our first year try to walk a fine line – we want to speak up in class and participate, but we are careful not to come across as abrasive. Upspeak is one tool that we unconsciously use to avoid becoming a “gunner”.
What does this mean for Laura Ashby? Although Ashby’s voice is an extreme example of upspeak, the backlash on Twitter and other forms of social media was not unusual. Google upspeak and you’ll hear commenters describe it as “annoying,” “vapid,” and “grating.” If Linneman is correct that upspeak is used to compensate for success, then perhaps this perceived gender gap is simply the product of women feeling more pressure to compensate.
While it’s not a new observation that women struggle between being assertive and abrasive, especially in professional environments, it would be unfortunate if one of the tools used to navigate this difficulty has been observed, identified, and dismissed as “annoying” without a deeper consideration of the circumstances that brought it about. In that way, opponents of upspeak are criticizing a symptom with disregard for the underlying cause.
Since by definition upspeak makes the speaker sound uncertain, when we hear upspeak we hear a person who sounds uncomfortable with his or her statements, However, both Linneman’s research and my personal experience suggest that the tone is used not for the benefit of the speaker but rather to avoid discomfort on the part of the listener. Maybe it’s not so much a vocal tic as a coping mechanism that women have developed to navigate in a society that calls them “aggressive” “shrill” and “nagging” when they speak in an unapologetic tone (see: Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign). Rather than policing the way women speak in an already constricting environment by telling them to avoid certain vocal tics or phrases (see: “I’m sorry but,” “This might be stupid but,” or “sorry if I’m being nit-picky”) we should make an effort to rectify the underlying sexism that creates the need for them.
I, for one, would certainly prefer to hear my classmates—female or male—speaking “up” than not speaking up at all.
About the author: Courtney Cronin is was Undergraduate Public Service Scholar in 2013 when she interned with the Small Business Majority, a nonprofit that represents small business interests. She has been working on political campaigns since she was six, and recently worked as a field organizer then deputy regional field director for the campaigns of Senator Mark Udall and Congressman Ed Perlmutter in Colorado’s 7th congressional district. Courtney Courtney attended University of San Diego where she double majored in political science and sociology and currently attends law school at Stanford University.