When it comes to speaking well, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. People have different inflections when they speak, spanning various tones, pitches, and cadences. And while no two people have the same exact speech pattern, certain ones are more common than others—and that includes uptalk, or a rising inflection in your voice that makes a statement sound like a question. Uptalk may be common, but it can also lead to unfair judgments, particularly for women.
What, exactly, is uptalk? How does it impact women in the workplace? And, if you’re a frequent uptalker and want not to be, how can you rid yourself of the habit? Let's get into it.
“Uptalk is a mannerism of speech pattern and intonation that makes statements sound like questions,” says Amy Eliza Wong, an executive coach and communications expert. “In other words, the last word in a sentence ends higher in pitch.”
Let’s say you submitted a project to your supervisor and you need feedback by the end of the week. Instead of declaring, “I was hoping to get your feedback by the end of the week,” with uptalk, your voice would rise toward the end of the sentence, making it sound like a question: “I was hoping to get your feedback by the end of the week?”
Uptalk has been a part of the cultural zeitgeist for decades. The earliest exploration of what is now known as uptalk occurred in 1975, per the BBC, when linguist Robin Lakoff wrote, “There is a peculiar sentence pattern…which has the form of a declarative answer to a question, and is used as such, but has the rising inflection typical of a yes-no question."
This speech pattern gained further recognition in the 1980s, as the “quintessential ‘valley girl’ mode of speaking that was popularized after Frank Zappa’s song ‘Valley Girl’ in 1982,” Wong says. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the term “uptalk” was coined by writer James Gorman in a piece for The New York Times.
While it’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with uptalk as a speech pattern, per se, it can impact how people (and, in particular women) are perceived—especially in the workplace.
“It’s a communication pattern that should be used intentionally and situationally,” says executive coach and communications consultant Tihanna Louise. “Uptalk can inadvertently undermine a professional’s authority and the perceived validity of their ideas. “It’s not just about the quality of the ideas, but also about how confidently they are communicated.”
What does uptalk actually sound like in conversation?
“Think back to a common scenario, like someone calling for their lost dog,” Louise recommends. “Picture them shouting, ‘Barney?’ There’s a distinctive tone at the end of the name that rises, almost like they’re asking a question instead of just calling out. This rise in pitch—this questioning inflection at the end of a statement—is a classic example of uptalk.”
Another example from Louise: “Imagine you’re confidently walking into a room, saying, ‘I’m going to the store?’—but [because of uptalk], it sounds like you’re asking for permission rather than stating your plan.”
At work, people uptalk for a variety of reasons. It “can happen when the speaker feels hesitation or lack of confidence about their positional power, ideas, stance, or point of view,” Wong says. “Rather than asserting a statement and making a claim, the speaker will offer their thoughts as more of a question as a way to signal deference—whether they realize it or not. The question in their tone reflects the question they feel about their ideas or competence.”
Let’s say it’s your first day at a new job and you’re unsure of the norms in the office. When you’re ready for your lunch break, you might plan to tell your supervisor that you’re stepping out for lunch, but your uncertainty about the situation (Do people leave for lunch? Do people eat at their desks? How long do I have before I have to be back at my desk?) may cause your statement to sound more like a question: “I’m stepping out for lunch?”
Maybe you have to give a presentation for your team, and you’re feeling nervous about speaking in front of so many people. When you communicate that it’s time for the meeting to start, that nervousness you’re feeling could cause your voice to rise, making the statement, “It’s time to get started” sound like a question: “It’s time to get started?”
Just because uptalk may happen when a person is feeling uncertain or insecure, it by no means only happens for those reasons. For many people, uptalk is a habit—and no matter how confident they feel, the speech pattern may find its way into their conversation.
“Imagine you’re in a high-stakes meeting, and you’re about to propose a new strategy. You’ve done your homework, the data backs you up, you have a killer customer story to put it all into context, and you’re ready to make your case,” Louise says. “You start with, ‘I believe this strategy could increase our ROI by 30%?’ Instead of sounding like a confident proposal, the uptalk at the end of your sentence turns it into something that sounds more like you’re seeking approval rather than presenting a well-researched plan.”
Unfortunately, even if you’re super confident and assured of what you’re saying, when you uptalk, it isn’t always perceived that way.
“While the speaker may not feel hesitation about their ideas or competence when they share their ideas, their upspeak may be perceived as lack of self-assuredness, causing undue negative judgment,” Wong says.
Uptalk isn’t always a negative thing. Sometimes, it can be used—particularly by people in leadership positions—as a way to signal that input and ideas are welcome.
“When someone intentionally wants to invite ideation and collaboration, they may use upspeak as a way to invite the listener(s) into a collaborative conversation on the topic of hand,” Wong says. “This is especially powerful when the speaker is in a position of power and uses this technique intentionally. Using infrequent and strategic uptalk as a way to signal safety, receptivity, and openness to a group can be a powerful way to build trust.”
Let’s say you’re a manager, and you’re working on finishing a project with your team. When you’re satisfied with the work and ready to wrap up a project with your team, you’ll want to communicate that to them. However, making a statement (“I think this work is finished”) doesn’t necessarily leave a ton of room for feedback, particularly for team members that may struggle to give their input. Using uptalk (“I think this work is finished?”) can signal to your team that, while you’re sharing your opinion on the project’s completion, you’re also open to hearing if they think otherwise.
The tendency to uptalk is not just a women’s issue—men do it, too—but, similar to other characteristics or behaviors (like assertiveness), women are judged differently for uptalking than their male counterparts. When men engage in uptalk, it’s often overlooked or ignored, but when women are the ones doing the uptalking, they often find themselves under scrutiny.
“The impact of this kind of scrutiny is significant and real,” Louise says.
What kind of impact? “If women aren't mindful of the possible perception of their speech patterns and intonation, both intentional and unintentional, it could lead to the loss of career advancement due to judgments made about their competency or character,” Wong says, adding that those judgments can include being perceived as insecure, incompetent, immature, or uncertain. In the professional world, where perception often equals reality, falling into the uptalk trap can be a subtle yet significant barrier to effective leadership,” Louise says.
Whether it’s fair or not, in many situations, when women uptalk at work, it holds them back.
As mentioned, not all uptalk is bad, but excessive uptalk at work can lead to negative perceptions (like being viewed as insecure or unsure of your standing at the company), and those perceptions can have serious consequences (like being passed over for a promotion). This is why it’s important to get uptalk under control. How do you do that?
You can’t fix something if you’re not aware of when you’re doing it. If you want to break your uptalking habit, you need to identify when you have a tendency to uptalk. Wong suggests having a conversation with a friend or family member and recording the conversation so you can “get real-time feedback of listening to yourself in action,” Wong says. To make the most out of the conversation, Wong recommends talking for at least 30 minutes and having your friend or family member ask you a series of in-depth, thought-provoking questions—ideally mimicking conversations you may have at work.
Once you’re done with the conversation, “review the recording for tone, style, and feel, making notes of the speech patterns and changes in intonation,” Wong says. Recording yourself talking will give you a clear idea of when and how often you use uptalk—and from there, you can develop a plan for how to change it.
It’s the rise of the voice at the end of a sentence that transforms a statement into uptalk. If you want to uptalk less, a great place to focus is by practicing the ending of your sentences. “Work on ending your statements with a clear, downward inflection,” Louise says. “This practice helps in developing a habit of sounding more conclusive and assertive.” The more you practice, the more natural the downward inflection will feel—and the less likely you’ll be to uptalk.
Another way to minimize uptalk is to slow down. “If you find yourself habitually uptalking in professional contexts, try to slow down your pace of speaking,” Louise says. In addition to talking slowly, you may also want to practice lowering your voice. “Aim for a lower, more steady tone of voice to convey confidence and authority,” Louise adds. “It’s harder to uptalk in lower tones.”
Too much uptalk likely won’t do you any favors at work, but there are certainly situations where uptalk can actually foster better communication. The key is knowing the difference between when uptalk will work in your favor and when it won’t—and adjusting your speech accordingly.
“The deal with uptalk is not about eliminating it from your speech entirely; it’s about knowing when to use it and when to lose it,” Louise says. “In some situations, like building team rapport or making a connection, uptalk can be your ally. But in a boardroom or a big presentation? That's when you want to keep it in check. It’s all about balance and being strategic with your tone.”