Illustration: Athena Gubbe
I've done everything I can to stop it. Whatever modest sphere of influence I have, I've used. Teaching large undergraduate classes, writing newspaper articles, giving interviews - all to no avail. I'm fighting a steamroller here or, in the more colorful language of Evolutionary Psychology, a very powerful meme. This is the meme from Hell. The kind of cultural thing Richard Dawkins must have had in mind when he introduced the term in The Selfish Gene in 1976. This was, he argued, the way culture spreads - longitudinally as a virus spreads within a population. The meme is the basic unit of culture. As Dawkins argued, memes "travel horizontally, like viruses in an epidemic." They compete with other memes and the winners take up residence in our minds, defining what our culture looks and sounds like. When Susan Blackmore wrote The Meme Machine in 1999, she didn't have the topic of this column as an example to draw upon. That's unfortunate. This one is the equivalent of a viral video. About all you can do is stand back and watch it spread. In this case, of course, you'd have to listen to it spread, since it has become part of speech.
What am I talking about, you ask? Uptalk. That ever-growing tendency to end statements with upward inflections to make them sound like questions. Like you're not quite sure what you're saying is true. Or clear. Or will be acceptable to your audience. To suggest that you're willing to back down, or restate your point, or change your viewpoint altogether if your listeners don't nod their approval.
It's a nasty habit. It is the very opposite of confidence or assertiveness. It's gotten all out of control. These days even statements about which there should be no question or doubt are presented in this tentative, timid and deferential manner. Here's an example. I teach a 4th year university course in which part of the requirement is a seminar presentation. Students used to stand up and share the results of their research in a way that conveyed their confidence and knowledge. They no longer do. Even if they do feel confident, their culture now mandates that they dial it back and sound like this:
My name is Jennifer? My seminar today is on bystander apathy? There is quite a bit of research on this topic?
Why all the questions, Jennifer? Just what is at issue here? Are you not sure of your name? Are you willing to change it if we don't nod our approval? Why are you unsure of your seminar topic? Does that, too, require our approval? Why can't you simply tell us, "My name is Jennifer and I'm going to talk about bystander apathy" and be done with it. Is that considered impolite? Is a period at the end of a sentence no longer an acceptable form of punctuation? Sadly, I think we have an answer to that question. Making a declarative statement is no longer OK. It is not socially acceptable for a 21 year old woman to stand before an audience and tell us her name or what she knows without turning into a shy little girl whose statements are questions or pleas for consensus. And yes, there does seem to be a sex difference in the frequency of uptalk. That, in itself, is a pretty revealing insight into its nature.
About ten years ago I started to notice this pattern. The cases were isolated but frequent enough to get my attention. I questioned some of the uptalkers. All were women, and all claimed to be oblivious to the fact that they were doing it. Calling it to their attention resulted in an immediate reduction in uptalk that lasted two or three minutes, followed inevitably by a return to form. It seems that once this meme has taken hold, it was all but impossible to shake loose. I wrote an editorial in 2002 for the Toronto Globe and Mail, a very influential national newspaper. It received prominent placement in the paper, complete with a headline in the widely-read "Facts and Opinions" section of the paper. The article was called "The Canuck Uptalk Epidemic." It resulted in a flurry of response, almost all of it positive. In fact, I'm being polite. There was no negative response. I heard from public speaking groups, science teachers, linguists, feminist organizations. My editorial was reprinted in The Canadian Guide to Public Speaking. Feminist groups wondered why women were more readily affected and so quick to back away from their opinions and seek consensus before continuing to speak. What was wrong with being assertive? Since when had it become impolite?
Some argued that uptalk had begun as a form of Valley Girl-speak. It had then spread to pre-teen girls in general, a demographic never known for its confidence. Some argued that Canadians were a perfect demographic in which the epidemic could spread. Mild-mannered, consensus-seeking to a fault, what better place for uptalk to take root than in the land of moose and maple syrup?
But it didn't stay there. "The Canuck Uptalk Epidemic" is now just "The Uptalk Epidemic." Like all good memes, uptalk has an insatiable appetite for human minds. So south it went. Americans may have offered more initial resistance, but the uptalk meme was persistent. Even among New Yorkers the infection spread. Uptalk no longer confines its home to insecure 12-year old Canadian girls. I hear it in grown women. I hear it in men. I hear it in Americans. I recently heard it in a visitor from Britain. That was particularly disturbing to me because back in 2002, when I attended a conference in London, one of my hosts came up to me during a presentation by a Canadian woman. "What's wrong with her?" he whispered. "It sounds like all she's doing is asking questions. Do Canadians all speak like that?"
Now Brits have caught the infection. I also hear it slipping into the words of televised news reporters. This is a relatively recent victory for the conquering meme. The stakes are very high. Televised news establishes linguistic norms for millions of people. I used to worry about my undergraduate students influencing 40 classmates. A television news reporter can infect millions of minds at a time.
As I said at the outset, I fear the battle is in its last stages. People no longer hear uptalk unless you point it out to them (I continue to.) They have learned to view it as normal speech. The day may come when statements and opinions will become extinct, replaced by questions and trial balloons, floated by timid, non-assertive speakers, hoping their audience will give them permission to continue.
There is a big difference between "My name is Hank? This is what I believe?" and "My name is Hank. This is what I believe." I am saying the latter. I hope you can still hear the difference.