I recently attended a two-day webinar devoted to transgender voice and communication training for voice clinicians. It was a fantastic experience, and I would recommend the training without hesitation. Even in a super-inclusive and culturally-sensitive environment, people are bound to put a foot in a mouth occasionally– we’re only human, and our implicit biases often slip under the radar. The workshop leaders acknowledged this at the outset, and called these slips “teaching moments”– opportunities to clarify our thinking and our language.
At one point, someone said that they didn’t teach “uptalk” to trans women, because it wasn’t “assertive.” My cultural context radar went off, and I decided to invite a teaching moment. The workshop leaders were wonderfully receptive to my email, shared it with the group, and facilitated a rich conversation about standards and biases. It felt so good to be part of a group that welcomed this kind of inclusive dialogue, and I was reminded of my experience with KTS.
This was the email I sent [edited slightly for clarity]:

A little food for thought on “uptalk”…

This is a cultural phenomenon originally related to the prosody of a legitimate accent (as all accents are legitimate) and shouldn’t be minimized as “these kids these days.” It doesn’t automatically signal uncertainty or lack of assertiveness– that’s making a generalization about a group of speakers who exhibit a behavior that’s not normative, based on the listener’s own cultural lens. It’s simply an inflectional variety. Treating it like a personality disorder simply because it’s not “standard” ignores a great variety of English inflection patterns outside the prestige patterns of so-called General American and RP. Valley girls are not the only (or first) group of people to use rising terminal inflections. This relates DIRECTLY to the topic of this seminar. This is an instance of “difference, not disorder.” [ed.: It’s an important distinction for therapists to make, and this phrase is one that’s taught in SLP courses.]

I grant that it can be useful to teach an acrolect, or the “voice of power,” to a client. Certain patterns convey certain messages. But they don’t convey the same message to all people– they’re not universals. The message you convey depends as much on your audience as on your intention. I grant that it may not be useful to teach uptalk to a client in most instances. But I would like to see us all take care not to stigmatize non-standard varieties, especially in our professional settings– in the words of speech teacher Dudley Knight, we should try to “place a firewall” between our own inevitable aesthetic biases and the work we’re doing.

I think it’s part of our job to call out our own and others’ assumptions about “others”…including girls from the valley. Any prescriptive standard model we teach needs to be explicitly identified in terms of who it represents, what power systems it reinforces, and tempered with a healthy dose of cultural context. We ought to be very aware if we’re hiding our individual preference for a hegemonic standard behind the label of “assertive” speech– whatever thing we may imagine that to be. If we’re choosing not to teach uptalk because it’s “less assertive,” let’s make sure we say to whom it comes across that way. That may mean de-centering our own identities a bit, and it’s work that we must do.

It’s easy to feel self-congratulatory about starting a good conversation, but I’ve been the one with the foot in my mouth just as often. What’s your favorite “teaching moment” story?

2 thoughts on “Uptalk?

  1. Love the picture, Jeremy! These kinds of teachable moments are tricky—I think you handled this one very well. I suspect that Valley Girl is getting so old in our cultural consciousness as a “reference ” that we’ll have to begin to find other new reference points. Even “Shosh” from “Girls” is now a dated reference! What’s a teacher to do but to watch lots more pop culture in order to stay current???

    1. Thanks for commenting, Eric! You’re right…it’s hard to keep up! Maybe my dated references will one day be “retro” and trendy again? Meanwhile, I know I can rely on my students to put me in my place whenever I start to feel too cool!

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