What, Like, Not To Do?: Uptalking In The Workplace


Our speech patterns and intonations are something that can have a monumental affect on our work performance, and yet we are often unaware of them.

The way we speak is habitual.

Growing up many young people adopted “uptalking” because it was the speech pattern de jour; as linguist Deborah Tannen explains in James Gorman’s New York Times Article ‘Like, Uptalk?’, “There’s a fundamental human impulse to imitate what we hear.”

Chatting with our friends in perpetual questions may have been acceptable in the school yard, but in the workplace we are selling ourselves short.

Uptalking, also known as high-rise terminals (HRTs), causes our voice to go up at the end of a sentence so we sound like we are asking a question rather than making a definitive statement.

Since many of us have been talking this way since before we can remember, the habit has carried on from adolescence to adulthood.

Chatting with our friends in perpetual questions may have been acceptable in the school yard, but in the workplace we are selling ourselves short by using HRTs.

Diane DiResta describes uptalking in Matt Seaton’s article ‘Word Up’ as “a form of politically correct language” which is used as a safety net when people are afraid what they are saying will not be accepted.  If a statement is posed as a question, it is easily retractable if met with a negative reaction.

DiResta continues by saying, “Uptalk robs them [people] of their credibility and authority.”  If you are just starting out in the work place, you can understand why diminishing your authority with simple intonations can work to your disadvantage.

Do you uptalk?

It can be tricky to assess our own speech habits, but Laura Babcock, president of Powergroup Communications (a firm which includes customized communications training courses) offers up several things to look for when identifying uptalking.  Consider the following list and if any of them apply to you:

1. Are you female?

Sorry ladies, as much as this sucks, Babcock says that women are more prone to uptalking than men

2. Do you not sound confident when you speak?

3. Do people not take you seriously despite your current position at a company or organization?

4. Have you ever been described as ditzy or a ‘valley girl’?

How to stop uptalking

If you can identify with any of these, uptalking may be hindering your upward trajectory in the workplace. The following are five simple steps Babcock recommends to overcome uptalking:

1. Be aware.

Once you know you are uptalking, you can begin to change it.

2. End  your statements with a definitive period and avoid raising your voice, even if it feels unnatural at first.

When conversing with people (and making statements) consciously think about what you are saying.  It may help to imagine a plane sticking its landing as opposed to going in too steep and having to pull back up at the last moment.

3. Practice.

As with anything, practice makes perfect.

4. Record yourself, even if it is embarrassing.

Recording yourself speaking is an easy way to identify if you are uptalking and also if you improve with practice.

5. Ask friends and family for feedback.

Once you bring up the subject of uptalking, people will start to notice when you do it.  Ask friends and family for honest feedback when you speak and you can start to catch yourself when your intonations change.

As a former uptalker, I can tell you that it is possible to kick the high-rise habit.  It just takes awareness, practice, dedication, and a good grasp on punctuation.  PERIOD.

About the author

Gabi Pirraglia graduated from McMaster University with a double major in communications and cultural studies and is now working as vice president of communications for the multiplatform communications firm POWERGROUP. She spent her final year of school providing career insight for McMaster University’s Career Services blog, Water Cooler Gossip. Gabi has an affinity for writing, popular culture, social media, and anything covered in gold sequins.