She Turned Her Upspeak Down a Notch

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"How old are you?"

I'm a freelance journalist in Brooklyn who does a majority of reporting over the phone, and it's disconcerting how often my interview subjects ask me that question. Some people say, "You sound just like my granddaughter."

Although I am 31, I apparently sound as if I'm 12. My problem isn't just that my voice is girlish -- I'm also an inveterate upspeaker, meaning that my voice tends to go up at the end of a sentence. (Upspeak started receiving cultural recognition as a young woman's way of talking after the Frank Zappa song "Valley Girl" hit the airwaves in the 1980s.) As a result, my statements can sound like questions, which can telegraph uncertainty.

The issue was the most glaring when I did podcasts as an editor at Slate magazine. I would get nasty comments about my voice, like the following left on the podcast's Facebook wall: "Show has become totally unlistenable due to valley girl/faux socialite voice of your youngest panelist." Others would tell me that my manner of speech detracted from what I was saying.

When I listened to my voice on the podcasts, I liked it. I thought it communicated how energetic and enthusiastic I was. I wondered whether my critics were being sexist. Did they expect me to sound like a 50-year-old television anchorman?

But I couldn't brush the criticism aside. Clearly, my voice has affected my work. I want to be treated with respect, and as I grow older I am concerned that employers will condescend to me or deny me opportunities because I seem too young or unsure of myself.

Because I couldn't fix that bias single-handedly, I decided to try to change my voice instead. I asked Diane DiResta, an executive speech coach and the author of "Knockout Presentations," how I could sound more like the 31-year-old professional I am, instead of the air-headed adolescent people picture when they hear my voice on the phone.

"It's not just your uptalk that makes you sound young," Ms. DiResta told me after listening to me yammer for a few moments. "It's also your intonation. You have a sing-songy quality to your voice."

I had never realized that was an issue. After she told me that, I started having trouble forming sentences because I was worried that they'd come out wrong. Ms. DiResta soothed me. She promised that she wouldn't make me sound like a corporate drone -- she would merely help me sound like a better version of myself. She identified a couple of main problem areas on which I could focus: the upspeak and an excessive use of filler words like "um" and "y'know."

Awareness was pivotal to my fixing both the upspeak and the "ums." Ms. DiResta recommended that I listen to myself in a conversation and keep a running tally of how and when I used filler words, and to be mindful of my pitch.

Over the next few weeks, I cut down on my upspeak significantly in my professional dealings, and even in some of my personal ones. But while none of my sources asked me how old I was, I couldn't help but feel that I had lost a certain spontaneity and emotional connection with my interview subjects when I was keeping my voice so even, and I felt that there was a stilted quality to the responses I received.

I was trying to justify reverting back to my old way of speaking, but then I remembered something that Ms. DiResta had said in passing during our first conversation. She noted that upspeak might not be such a drawback in the future -- it's so pervasive among both women and men in the millennial generation that once they are in more positions of power, it might become the corporate norm. But she doesn't believe that it serves anyone in the workplace right now.

"It doesn't make you sound credible or authoritative," she says.

What upspeak may do right now, Ms. DiResta conceded, is make people more comfortable with me. Though it doesn't sound authoritative, it may sound egalitarian and accepting. In an interview situation, that may cause a source to open up to me.

IN the end, I decided to compromise. While I do try to keep my voice a little more even, I haven't given up completely on my girlish tone and my upspeak. The next time a source asks me how old I am, I won't become offended. I'll smile inwardly and wait for him or her to say something revealing to that nice, granddaughterly girl on the phone.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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