More evidence of NSA’s political and industrial espionage »« How much did foreign government leaders know about NSA spying?

Why girls should avoid upspeak and baby voices

In a comment on my post about voiceover artists, reader Anthony Burber referred me to an interesting article by a middle-school teacher Jessica Lahey who was concerned about the number of girls in her class who had an ‘upspeak’ in their voices or, even worse, adopted childish voices.

For years, I ignored the habit of baby voice and upspeak because while it is irksome, I was grateful my students were speaking up in class at all.

I tried to look past the habit, hoping it, like most trends, would pass into history. But after a few years of listening to girls make smart and insightful points with tentative, childish voices, I felt compelled to intervene. I became even more concerned when I realized that the trend could be interpreted as something more sinister than mere vocal affectation. “Sexy baby voice,” or SBV, was showing up in television and films as an instrument of sexual manipulation, a way of exploiting our culture’s fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages.

Lahey makes the important distinction that it is not a question of natural pitch, which is biologically constrained.

Middle school girls often have very high-pitched voices that may or may not develop into a deeper chest voice with time. I’m looking for the more subtle lilt, tone, and retreat from authority delivered via that high-pitched voice. Most of all, I’m looking for what could be perceived as an intimation of sexual or societal submission.

Lahey says that these speech patterns are learned behaviors that can and should be unlearned with practice and some effort so that they will be listened to with greater respect.

I addressed the issue of upspeak some time ago (though I wasn’t aware of the particular word used to describe it then) in a post that dealt with the differential treatment that men and women receive in the public sphere, and in the world that I inhabit, I am glad to say that I rarely hear it much anymore though I am sensitive to it.

Neither of my daughters (who are now grown and independent) nor their close friends practiced either upspeak or baby voices. I asked them about why this might be so and whether they had noticed it among their other peers. One of them said that the teachers tried to stop this kind of talk, including the overuse of the word ‘like’. They also said that their group of friends consisted of high-academic achievers and so may have had more confidence in themselves but that they had noticed this more among the so-called ‘popular’ girls (which in the paradoxical world of high school consisted of a small coterie that were widely disliked), both in high-school and college.

Comments

  1. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Lahey says that these speech patterns are learned behaviors that can and should be unlearned with practice and some effort so that they will be listened to with greater respect.

    How about we just cut out the middle man, so to speak, and just listen to them with respect instead of making respect contingent upon them unlearning a behavior that’s been socialized into them by their culture? We do this to girls so much: teach them to behave a certain way and then shame them for it. It’s fucked up.

  2. badgersdaughter says

    That makes a lot of sense. Has anyone else noticed a certain flatness in many women’s voices? I have found it irritating for about 25 years. It appears to consist of a certain lack of volume and tone variation, along with a nasal sort of sound and a slightly drawled pace. When I was in college in the late 80s, it was typical of sorority girls in the South, but it was very different from a Southern drawl.

  3. mordred says

    That reminds me of my first girlfriend who would occasionally look at me with big, innocent eyes and say to me in a high pitched cutsey voice something along the lines of “Yes, my darling!” – usually when I was repeating myself (I tend to do that) or explaining something obvious. (I also tend to do that)

    I never met another person who could sound so cute and sarcastic at the same time!

    On a serious note: Yes, I think I know the phenomenon, also happens here in Germany. Personally I’d find a woman/girl who’s seriously talking like that annoying, but for a lot of guys the harmless little girly still seems rather attractive.

  4. Mano Singham says

    @Seven on Mine …#1,

    This is the whole problem of possible conflicts between solutions for society and solutions for the person in front of you. Yes, it is better for society to not be influenced by things like this. But for a teacher with an actual student in front of you, wouldn’t it be better for that student to learn how to better gain respect rather than hope that society changes quickly enough?

    The solution is to do both. Help the person and try and change society’s expectations.

  5. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    @4 Mano

    The solution is to do both. Help the person and try and change society’s expectations.

    And yet that sentiment is nowhere to be found in your post or the original article. Both focus entirely on what girls and women need to do to fix the problem. Both implicitly blame girls and women by completely failing to mention that the entire reason this is a problem in the first place is because society conditions girls that speaking with confidence is for boys.

  6. says

    Oh, blah. Girls are buying into some stupid shit here; I think we’re allowed to find that annoying. I know I find it annoying. No, make that infuriating.

    The actor who plays Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory says it was her idea to talk in that ridiculous squeaky voice. Baaaaaaad idea.

  7. Donnie says

    Didn’t this originate, or become popular (anime) via Japanese cultural attitudes of young women? I thought I read somewhere where japanese girls would speak cutely to boys but speak normally to their friends.

  8. northstar says

    This finally makes me ask the question I had, Mano, at the end of your previous blog _”The wrong way to attract young viewers?”_ In it, you said something to the effect of, that when you counsel new faculty members, you tell them that if they don’t have the “default authority” of an older male, they need to subtly let it be known they know what they are talking about. But how is that done?

    Not using the “uplift” is specifically one way, one that may seem obvious but I wouldn’t have been able to put a finger on if it weren’t pointed out directly. I wish there were a primer for the other ways one appears authoritative to others without negative blowback!

  9. Anthony Burber says

    @Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm:
    Yes, simply telling students that their squeaky voices are bad and they should speak more deeply would be insulting and harmful. Worse, some teachers will read the linked article and do just that. However, the writer of that article wasn’t so direct:

    I incorporated a lot more public speaking in all of my classes. I taught my students to stand on both feet, hips square, chests out, and shoulders back. I invited the drama teacher come to class and teach them how to take up space with their words. He taught them how to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, to project, and to be ready to speak before they open their mouths. All of my students benefitted from these lessons, but my babytalker more than anyone else.

    I used to have a lot of the other public speaking bad habits – staring at the floor, mumbling, shallow breathing. Fortunately I happened to join a choir shortly before I had to start giving seminars as a postgraduate. It made a huge difference, and the deeper voice came as a side effect of breathing properly.

  10. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    @badgersdaughter:

    I’ve noticed something very similar (identical?) to what you describe in the speech of several of my nieces who live in Ohio. I find it unpleasant but there’s not much that can be done about it. I haven’t heard anything similar where I live (Boston area), but of course we have our own problems.

  11. filethirteen says

    Mano, I’m not sure about this. I don’t see a difference between disapproving of a girl using a cutesy voice and of a boy using an effeminate voice. What is your view on the latter?

  12. Mano Singham says

    @filethirteen,

    That is an interesting question. As I see it, effeminate is a tone of voice and as the author pointed out, it is not tone that is the primary issue. With upspeak, it is an artificial tentativeness of dictionthat undercuts the speaker’s authority. With SBV, it has a darker purpose.

    Effeminacy does not by itself have these negative connotations though I could imagine that someone might try to deliberately use an effeminate voice to try and achieve those same ends. But I don’t think it is the norm.

  13. Heidi Nemeth says

    Both in Japanese and French, women typically speak in a register much higher than their normal voice. It is a cultural norm. Certainly, in Japan, women are not treated as equals to men. Not sure about France, though I can’t think of any important French women politicians, only French politicians’ mistresses, consorts and wives. So the high voice may help to attract the males’ favor, but does nothing to advance the women’s careers.

    Deborah Tannen, in her book “You just don’t Understand” addresses many of the ways women are socialized to speak that diminish their authority, including saying “please”, upspeak, adding words to make assertions tentative, and speaking in a higher register. I read it when my daughters were young, and my son, the youngest, just a baby. I demanded my husband use “please” himself if he required the girls use the word.

    Father to daughter, “Say ‘Please’!”
    Or, father to daughter, “Please say ‘Please’!”

    Kids do what you do, not what you say.

    “Please” became rare in conversation in our house. I probably made other changes based on the book. Now my grown daughters are doing very well for themselves. I ascribe it partly to their being brought up in a more gender neutral conversational milieu.

  14. Jonny Vincent says

    Sometimes I feel you’re all putting it on a bit thick.

    I became even more concerned when I realized that the trend could be interpreted as something more sinister than mere vocal affectation. “Sexy baby voice,” or SBV, was showing up in television and films as an instrument of sexual manipulation, a way of exploiting our culture’s fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages.

    Yeah, that makes a lot of (non)sense. Here’s the biological reality; men are coded to instinctively respond to and protect the young of every mammal species, who’ve developed certain distinctive features that trigger a biological impulse in men to pay attention to their needs and protect them from harm or cut them slack when frustrated at mistakes and errors made in good faith.

    Malicious women who want to exploit men shamelessly infantilise themselves, mimicking those distinctive biological triggers to gain competitive edge in the pursuit of male attention. They somehow manage to convince themselves that the male impulse to pay attention to and protect children is actually a male preference for grown women pretending to be children. I mean, really…

    It’s an easy mistake to make when you have NPD. It would seem everyone here has made it. But then sometimes I feel you’re all putting it on a bit thick.

  15. Pen says

    The thing is I think it’s natural for all people in most cultures and situations to behave in such a way as to defuse social threat. Threat to themselves from other people and the possibility that they may appear threatening. And, boy, do you just have to look around – or look at studies – to see that assertive women are found threatening and that their listeners often respond with threats.

    It’s all very well to say everybody should change, but we’re in an interactive system in which people adjust their behavior based on feedback. A woman (or girl) who doesn’t take care to present as non-threatening has to deal with the consequences of her message being ignored just as much as the woman who is considered insignificant. For centuries women in many cultures have used an explicit strategy for getting their message across which depends on ‘leading’ their listeners into thinking it was their (the listeners) idea in the first place. That’s appalling but the alternative is to have one’s personality become the message, rather than whatever one has to say.

    Men (and boys) have other ways of defusing social threat, which, interestingly enough, aren’t subject to as much examination as those of girls and women. Boys often make clowns of themselves to the point where it seems almost addictive. Men often grow into a kind of ‘you’re safe with me’ pose and tone of voice, which is perhaps a response to the fact that they’re quite explicitly seen by society as threatening and they really do have social power which we’re forced to hope they won’t misuse. The famous British self-deprecation, which is more often used by men, is also a method for defusing social threat, but Americans don’t do it so much.

  16. Anthony Burber says

    @Jonny Vincent #16:

    Here’s the biological reality; men are coded to instinctively respond to and protect the young of every mammal species, who’ve developed certain distinctive features that trigger a biological impulse in men to pay attention to their needs and protect them from harm or cut them slack when frustrated at mistakes and errors made in good faith.

    Wrong on every possible level. For most of recorded history, men have been happy to torture, kill or enslave young humans, young mammals, and pretty much everything else they’ve met. Generally, whenever some behavioral study suggests humans are “coded” for anything, someone else runs the experiment on a more diverse population and finds it’s learned, not innate.

    They somehow manage to convince themselves that the male impulse to pay attention to and protect children is actually a male preference for grown women pretending to be children.

    While your posting history blames every bad thing that people do on their mothers, teachers report that upspeak only became pervasive after their students saw it on TV and in movies. So, who decided that those media should be full of upspeak? Well, the producers, scriptwriters and directors are mostly men. They often cast actresses in their 20s to play characters in their 30s or 40s. They also choose certain voice and body types. If you think women do not look or act appropriately for their age, complain to the men who create the TV shows and movies, not to the commenters here on FtB. In particular, talk to Roman Polanski and Woody Allen about their perception and portrayal of women.

  17. says

    @badgersdaughter — If you speak with ANY kind of tone whatsoever beyond that “neutral” flat, you’re being “uppity”, “emotional”, or otherwise stepping outside of your defined boundaries and role. (At least that’s how my ex saw it.)

  18. somewhere in US says

    If you want to be truly annoyed by “upspeak” or little girl voices, watch French films from 70′s, 80′s even 90′s and beyond. French women apparently can’t speak above a baby doll whisper, and are constantly using the word “petite”. The last authentic and non plastic French woman must have been Edith Piaf, who had no problem making her feelings known.

  19. Jonny Vincent says

    Anthony Burber: For most of recorded history….

    I don’t really have the skills nor training to communicate with someone reduced to imagining biological coding and recorded history to be exchangeable values so I’m just going to ignore you.

    HuffingtonPost: The Surprising Reason We Find Babies Cute

    And research shows that our finding babies cute is no quirk of culture or optional effect of fashion but a worldwide trait that reaches beyond Homo sapiens. In “altricial” species, in which offspring require considerable parental care to reach self-sufficiency, the young tend to have “baby faces,” which apparently provoke nurturing and cuddling behaviors in adults of the species. (Babies are so much trouble, if they weren’t so cute, they’d be doomed! We’re wired up to honor cuteness with care.)

    The important lesson from evolutionary thinking here is that it is a mistake to think that first there was sweetness, sexiness, and cuteness, and then we evolved to love these properties. That’s just about backwards; these properties came into existence as effects of our tastes for them. This is a strange inversion of reasoning, but it’s right.

    You may have to read it a few times, but what Dan Dennett has brilliantly done is make the identical accusation as I have; accusing women (who know exactly why they’re pretending to be infants and adopting childlike traits) of hijacking men’s biological attention to / protection of children.

    Dennett initially points out that “We’re wired up to honor cuteness with care” before seemingly contradicting himself by saying “[sweetness, sexiness and cuteness] came into existence as effects of our tastes for them”. It’s appears nonsensical but it makes perfect sense as he’s talking about women stealing sweet and cute off children.

    “We’re wired up to honor cuteness with care.” Men are biologically coded to pay attention to / protect infants.
    “As effects of our tastes for them….” Women saw how men responded around children.
    “…these properties came into existence.” Women infantilised themselves.

  20. Jonny Vincent says

    The New York Times: The Cute Factor

    Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can’t lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

    The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.

    Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness.

    Even as they say a cute tooth has rational roots, scientists admit they are just beginning to map its subtleties and source. New studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine, which could explain why everybody in the panda house wore a big grin.

    It could also explain paedophila. And infantilised women who associate cute with sexual arousal could explain why cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, because that is not biological. That’s respondent conditioning.

    Pavlov’s dog (men) was conditioned to salivate (become aroused) by ringing a bell (cute child) that had been associated with food (sex).

    At the same time, said Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.

    “Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, Let’s not worry about complexities, just love me,” said Dr. Dutton, who is writing a book about Darwinian aesthetics. “That’s where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.”

    That feeling of being the target of unconscionable manipulation that’s more like perfidy than anything shallow. Bad luck for children, huh? Their innocence is going to trigger impulses of anger in confused men who have been exploited or deceived by cute infantilised women feigning innocence.

    Experts point out that the cuteness craze is particularly acute in Japan, where it goes by the name “kawaii” and has infiltrated the most masculine of redoubts. Truck drivers display Hello Kitty-style figurines on their dashboards. The police enliven safety billboards and wanted posters with two perky mouselike mascots, Pipo kun and Pipo chan.

    Behind the kawaii phenomenon, according to Brian J. McVeigh, a scholar of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, is the strongly hierarchical nature of Japanese culture. “Cuteness is used to soften up the vertical society,” he said, “to soften power relations and present authority without being threatening.”

    Politically correct gibberish that translates into honest English as: “Women searching for competitive edge in the ongoing exploitation of men are hijacking men’s biological instincts to protect children and conflating cute with sex.”

    Madison Avenue may adapt its strategies for maximal tweaking of our inherent baby radar, but babies themselves, evolutionary scientists say, did not really evolve to be cute. Instead, most of their salient qualities stem from the demands of human anatomy and the human brain, and became appealing to a potential caretaker’s eye only because infants wouldn’t survive otherwise.

    Women can exploit men for all I care, but this is what the issue boils down to. It’s something to think about, that is, if the fear of offending a sub-section of women threatening the survival of infants doesn’t make you feel too awkward to call a spade a spade?

  21. Michael S says

    What I’ve been hearing lately is a variation on the classic “up-speak.” I’m trying to find the right word(s) to describe it.

    It happens when a speaker is going through a list, and the last word of each list turns into an upspeak and/or extended whine(?). Drives me NUTS!

    e.g.
    First, I got in my caaar
    and drove to the stooooore.
    Then I saw a guuuuuy
    And then I heard a biiiiirrrrd
    Later I went back hoooooooome
    And turned on the raaaaadiooooo
    (AUUGGGHHH!!!!)

    It’s the stupid tempo change — drawing out the last wooooooord — usually combined with a whiny upspeak crescendo. It sometimes sounds as if the extended whiny woooooorrrrrd is being used as a “filler” while the speaker figures out the next nauseating item in the list he is sharing.

    Am I imagining this, or is it really getting worse?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>