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Just Words


When I was in grad school, a very pompous male guest speaker came to my mostly female lab and at one point decided, apropos of absolutely nothing, to launch into a tangent about how women needed to learn to control their uptalk, complete with mocking imitations of how all our sentences sounded like questions. He might have been telling himself he was helping us by exposing us to some hard truth for our self-improvement, but he was in fact just making fun a room full of young female scientists. He inspired widespread silent rage.

Debbie Cameron says everything that needs saying about the complaint about women’s speech newly in vogue: that we say “just” when we ask for something. She notes that women who would recognize body-policing articles for what they are are share speech-policing articles uncritically:

It bothers me that even feminists don’t seem to see the force of this analogy. When feminists encounter articles with headlines like ‘Are you eating too much fruit?’ or ‘Why implants are the new Botox’, they know they are in the presence of Beauty Myth bullshit, whose purpose is to make women feel bad about themselves. Feminists do not share those articles approvingly on Facebook. Yet a high proportion of my feminist acquaintance did share Leanse’s ‘just’ piece, and some of them shared the Jezebel commentary which appeared under the headline ‘Women, stop saying “just” so much, it makes you sound like children’. An article headed ‘Women, stop eating so much fruit, it makes you put on weight’ would immediately have raised their hackles. So why was the Jezebel piece acceptable?

She goes on to say what I would have if she had not spared me the labor — “just” is minimal politeness inserted into a request, and if men don’t use it (and I’m hardly convinced that they don’t), so much the worse for them! Women’s ways of speaking are not a problem even if they are characteristically female:

[R]equests [are] speech acts whose force is, essentially, ‘I want you to do something for me’. Leanse evidently realizes that requests are prime ‘just’ territory, but what she doesn’t appear to understand is why. When you ask someone to do something you’re imposing on them: showing you’re aware of that, and trying to minimize the imposition, is a basic form of politeness. How polite you need to be depends on the seriousness of the imposition and the specifics of the context: if you see someone’s about to get hit by a car you yell ‘move!’, not ‘I wonder if you could just move a few feet to the left’. But in most situations, some degree of politeness is normal. Leaving it out doesn’t make you sound ‘clearer and more confident’. It makes you sound like a rude, inconsiderate jerk.

So what women are being criticized for–using ‘just’ when they make requests–is not a form of excessive feminine deference, it’s a way of being polite by displaying your awareness of others’ needs. Where is the logic in telling women not to do that? I think we all know the answer: it’s the logic of patriarchy, which says ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

Even if authors like Leanse, who wrote the “just” piece, think it might be expedient to talk like a man, at the very least they ought to acknowledge that the reason it’s advantageous is not because there’s some inherent problem with the way women speak, that politeness is the same thing as submissiveness, but because men have more power, so sounding powerful might mean sounding like a man. (It’s not really clear how gendered these differences are, though, and it may not buy you much to rid yourself of feminine vocal patterns. You’ll still be a woman, which seems the root of the problem.) These discussions of how to conform to norms set by men are just that — a way to get by, not a path to virtue and confidence.

And even when you are clear about what the problem is, drawing a bunch of attention to supposedly gendered distinctions in behavior can still have some costs. Vocal fry, which Cameron also discusses, was the subject of a recent segment on This American Life. The show shared the hate mail it got regarding women’s vocal fry, how unprofessional and immature they sounded, while they ignored Ira’s vocal fry in every single sentence. Even though I encountered the issue in the context of an explicitly feminist consideration of how fry haters were just sexist, I spent the next couple days self-conscious about my own vocal fry to hardly be able to utter a sentence without hearing it and feeling like my voice had a new unpleasant aspect. I’d never thought about my vocal fry before, much less considered it gendered or problematic.

The recent discussion has even led me to feel a little more critical of the Amy Schumer “sorry” skit. Soon after watching it, I heard myself say, “I’m sorry” when my boss bumped his elbow in the cab (and it really wasn’t an empathetic “I’m sorry” — more like a deeply programmed reaction that because there was an accident nearby, I may have done something to cause it, and had better preemptively apologize). I started wondering whether I should work on excising “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary. But I’m currently thinking: why? What harm is done by this occasional five-letter word? It takes mental energy to change the way I talk, and what does it buy me but hesitation and self-consciousness? Sorry, not sorry.

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  • elm

    Yeah, I don’t know how gendered the just thing is. Anecdotally, I don’t notice a difference in email. Certainly, I use the word all the he time, but I often find I have tics and habits that are coded as female. For instance, I say sorry all the time, even when someone bumps me.

    • Linnaeus

      Re: “just” and “sorry”

      I use “just” all of the time, especially in requests to clients. It seems like an appropriate context, given that I’m the one who is providing customer service.

      As for “sorry”, I’ve often said it and had someone reply, “well, you didn’t do anything wrong” or “you don’t need to apologize”, and that would annoy me a bit because “sorry” isn’t just an apologetic. It can also mean “I’m sorry (that happened to you)” or “I’m sorry (to hear that).” This seems very basic to me.

    • MDrew

      Samesies. On “just” and “sorry” as well.

      Unless I’m 100% sure I had my elbow or whatever in just the right place, I assume at least to some extent I could have had it in a better place so as to avoid contact. That’s because I’m a fairly large person, and I undersnad I have tendencies in this direction (not just on trains).

      But it’s not, “I am truly sorry for having my elbow slightly hanging off the table where you might bump it”; it’s “I’m sorry that my deliberate choice to have my elbow wherever the fuck I want it, which I will make over and over again without doing otherwise throughout the course of the rest of my life, in this instance led to your bumping into it.” Which is not a very female-coded attitude to have. But it’s nevertheless expressed by the apparently female-coded, soft, very quick “Sorry.”

      Are we sure we’re sure how these habits are actually socially coded?

      • Years of reading Language Log has made me deeply skeptical of any claims in the media that a particular speech pattern is characteristic of one gender. I was not surprised to find a post there critical of this claim as well.

        • Anna in PDX

          I was coming here to comment that Language Log is a great place to get this sort of nonsense debunked. The original article said that the person informally listened for instances of the word and decided that it was mostly women who used it. This is such an obviously problematic way to back up her claim, it’s ludicrous on its face.

          I am just so tired (Oh no! I used the verboten word of the day!) of this process of finding some speech pattern to criticize and then gendering the criticism because obviously if it is used by women (assuming this is even true) it must be problematic and women should act more like men. (Cue Henry Higgins’ song)

          So tiring.

          • elm

            I think the technical term is ‘comfirmation bias.’ If you think a phrase is coded to a particular gender, you’re more likely to notice it when it comes from that gender. Similar to how some people code voice fry as something young women do and, therefore, don’t notice or, at least, remember, Ira’s voice fry.

        • Pat

          I find that uptalk is present in students of both genders, but seems to be a little more common in females. It could be, however, because I’m in a STEM field.

    • joe from Lowell

      I don’t always have the best ear, but that’s my sense, too.

      I wonder if this isn’t more about people taking their verbal pet peeves and defining them as feminine as a way of putting them down.

    • cpinva

      I think Leanse needs something else to occupy her time with, because this isn’t it. I use “just” frequently, in situations where I’ve asked a favor, or I’m following up on something. it just seems like the polite thing to do. it never occurred to me that it might be perceived as “girly” speech. it’s not necessary to be rude, to sound “powerfult”, or some such nonsense.

      with respect to “sorry”, I think I use it appropriately, when I’ve committed an error (Oops, sorry I bumped into you.), or I’m expressing sympathy for someone (I’m very sorry to hear of your Aunt’s passing away.), how she gets from normal, everyday type use, to it being perceived as too “female”, I have no clue. I doubt anyone would accuse me of being too feminine in my speech.

  • Sue.K.Mabels

    But I’m currently thinking: why? What harm is done by this occasional five-letter word? It takes mental energy to change the way I talk, and what does it buy me but hesitation and self-consciousness?

    Exactly. If women are being too submissive then attacking their speech for being too submissive is both useless to correct the underlying issue/behavior and counterproductively adding another layer of restriction to which women, supposedly, should submit themselves. Fuck that noise. Language is a means of communication, not a political platform.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      Oh, yeah.

      Don’t like “sorry” or “just”?

      “I’m sorry, just shut * up. **”

      * = NY variant, insert “the fuck”
      ** – CA variant, insert “have a nice day”

    • Hogan

      Dave: I made a small error in judgment.

      Mr. James: A small error in judgment. What exactly would that be, Dave? Would that be Matthew’s desk, or the dinner with Matthew, or the dinner with Lisa or the second dinner with Lisa?

      Dave: Okay, I may have made three or four small errors in judgment.

      Mr. James: No, they weren’t errors, Dave. They were decisions and that’s your job. No, the only error I see is that you’re letting your people push you around and make you second-guess your decisions.

      Dave: Of course, you’re right.

      Mr. James: And now you’re letting me do it. Want my advice?

      Dave: Yes.

      Mr. James: Well, I’m not gonna give it to you.

      • Malaclypse

        God that show was great.

  • I use “just” in that manner and so do a number of other men I know. I’m sensitized to this because I feel that I use it too much, but I couldn’t tell you how much other people use it.

    In short, I don’t think it’s gendered. I think it’s been seized upon as an easy way for assholes to police women’s actions.

    • Linnaeus

      This is my view as well. And, like you, sometimes I do think I use it too much.

      • tsam

        I use “just” way too often and I’m a big strong man. Besides, things that occur to me as idiosyncrasies common to or unique to women are endearing to me–especially when they’re used to be humorous. I don’t take them any less seriously than I would a man, man. (see what I did there?).

        I say all that as someone who trusts simple and concise language, and respect the ability to choose the correct word to communicate more than just the text of the words.

        • SatanicPanic

          It’s just that sometimes I want to sound like a nice person, you know?

          • tsam

            I do know, and I’m exactly the same way. No worries from me!

  • Aimai

    Very good post, KS. I really like the analysis of power, deference, and politeness encoded in the use of the word “just.” But I come down a little differently on the “I’m sorry” thing. My 16 year old says “I’m sorry” a lot–way, way, too much. And I’ve been thinking about why it bothers me and whether I need to do something abou tit. I hesitate to criticize it unless I really have a good theory about what I think she’s conveying when she says it so I haven’t intervened.

    But I do have a theory: my take on it is that her overuse of “I’m sorry” definitely seems to accept blame for stuff that has almost literally nothing to do with her. For example, if I say “The postman didn’t drop off the package I expected” her response is to say “I’m sorry” as though she is responsible and she feels the need to deflect my rightful rage at her. It shifts the discussion from an abstract problem, and one that is not really all that big a deal, and seems to turn it into one where she (seems to/acts like) I’m overreacting or I’m really suffering and she feels responsible for that, responsible maybe for defusing the situation or defusing me like I’m a time bomb. At one and the same time I see this as a problem for her (because she’s accepting responsibility for a whole shitload of things that are not her fault and have nothing to do with her) and a bit insulting because she’s turned an abstract event (no package) into what appears to be an enormous problem for me for which I need special handling.

    I’m thinking about workign with her to choose a different set of responses like “that must be very frustrating” or “that sounds hard” or something–something that leaves the other person (me, her best friend, the person talking to her) some space to talk about the problem without accepting the responsibility for fixing it herself, and without giving it too much importance.

    • Bruce B.

      Aimai, as someone who’s prone to that as well, I find it helpful to cultivate responses like “Ugh!” and “Foo!” and “Well, shoot, that must be a disappointment.” So I think you’re on a good track there in the last paragraph.

      • Katya

        I’ve practiced turning “I’m sorry” into “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “Oh no!” or “That must be annoying/frustrating/stressful/whatever.” It’s a way to express sympathy without taking responsibility for the underlying problem.

        • Aimai

          Exactly to both Katya and Bruce. This is the thing–lots of “I hear you” kinds of affirmative speech can both be a good thing (shows you care, shows you are listening) and if overused or improperly used, become a problem in and of itself. I think its important not to let a pro forma “I’m sorry” structure the rest of the interaction. If what you want to do is signal empathy or attentiveness there are other ways of doing it.

          • I have trouble convincing myself that “I’m sorry to hear that”, “That must be hard”, etc. don’t come across as insincere. I have a friend who persistently responds to “I’m sorry [about this thing that happened to you]” with “It’s not your fault”; instead of saying “well, duh, I was expressing sympathy, not apology” I’ve been trying to use those different phrases. But it always feels like kind of a cold way to speak to a friend.

            I don’t know if this is related, but I was raised to believe that “sorry isn’t enough” when it comes to apology. You had to say “I’m sorry I did X; what I was thinking was Y but I didn’t consider Z; I’ll try to do better with Z in the future”, in a sincere manner, and you actually had to do something about it. Just “sorry” is an expression of sympathy or, at most, acknowledgement of a minor inconvenience you caused someone else.

            I’ve run into people who think about it like me and people who don’t. It’s kind of shocking how drastic the differences can be within a single culture for something so fundamental.

            • Aimai

              I guess I think its complicated because when we are talking about someone’s use of “I’m sorry” we can’t perfectly convey the number or times that its used. Of course what is perfectly acceptable for some incidents, or some of the time can become problematic if overused, or used for too many kinds of situations. I don’t think that is as much a “difference within a single culture” as it is a potential real difference in use or situation of use.

              So, of course, people say “Sorry!” in a number of ways. My English friends practically trill it, with tremendous zest, if they are crashing through a crowd or stepping on people’s toes. It means “look out, I’m going to crash into you and not really care!” Or people say “I’m sorry [to hear that]” as a pro forma expression of interest and sympathy.

              My problem with my daughter is that she says it all the time, for things that aren’t really serious at all, and leaves you with the impression that you must have been overreacting (really? you are sorry there’s no salt on the table?) or that she is overly involved in the event to the extent that she is taking on the responsibility of fixing something that is unfixable (really, you are sorry that there wasn’t a nice sunset for me to see?). It makes storytelling, which we are very big on in our family, begin to seem like a form of special pleading for attention if every part of the story gets greeted with “I’m sorry.”

              • tsam

                That almost sounds like just something that pops out of her mouth when she isn’t sure what else to say. She may just feel like she should respond with something, and that’s the first thing that hits? (Not a judgement or diagnosis, just throwing out ideas)

                • Aimai

                  Right–whatever the reason for her saying it, it needs to stop because it leaves the person she’s talking to in a very uncomfortable position. Like they have to reassure her.

        • cpinva

          yes, this. it’s a nicer way of saying “Well, that sucks.”, which is probably what Amai’s daughter (and mine) actually meant.

      • I find it helpful to cultivate responses like “Ugh!” and “Foo!” and “Well, shoot, that must be a disappointment.”

        Are you my business partner? That’s exactly what she uses.

    • Coconinoite

      I agree. I see it in my 11-yr old, as well. I also see this gendered expectation of apology communication in the workplace (on occasion, mostly from conservative middle-aged male mgmt types) where, since we’re the “know-better, sensitive gender” we’re supposed to fix conflict in advance by being super-apologetic. Drives me up the frickin wall.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      I think that “I’m sorry” is just shorthand for “I find it regrettable that this has happened to you.”

      It’s an expression of empathy. I applaud you, and you should applaud yourself, for raising an empathetic daughter. What the world needs now is empathy, empathy, empathy.

      • marduk

        That’s how I understand it, and how I (occasionally) use it. Not as an apology, but as a shorthand for “I’m sorry to hear that”, which as you say is an expression of empathy. I was under the impression that this idiom was common and widely understood.

        • rea

          I’m sorry people don’t like the way I talk, but they should just fuck off.

        • nixnutz

          I get mildly annoyed when I say “I’m sorry” and someone replies that the misfortune in question was not my fault. Yeah, I wasn’t apologizing, I was commiserating.

    • ckc_not_kc

      …then there’s Canadians … sorry, eh?

      • D. C. Sessions

        So you agree that Canadians should be apologetic?

        • cpinva

          as should anyone who comes up with a food item named “poutine”.

          • Jackov

            poutine is glorious

            • Barry_D

              I haven’t had actual poutine, but french fries with gravy is serious comfort food.

              And that’s if the temperature is not below zero – F!

    • D. C. Sessions

      Thanks for pointing out (at least part of) the reason that frequent “I’m sorry” expressions bother me: among the other benign interpretations is the possible implication that I must be placated or else something.

      I really don’t like to think of myself that way, even when I’m pretty sure that’s not the intent.

    • tsam


      One of my daughters did that as well. It was disturbing to me, and it made me wonder if I was doing something to cause that behavior (body language, signs of anger or disappointment)

      It was when she apologized for accidents, like dropping a glass on the floor or banging a chair into the wall.

      What finally worked was saying “It’s ok–I know you wouldn’t do that purpose. Let’s just clean it up and move on, we got bigger things to worry about than a broken glass! I love you!”

      That worked on my daughter–I when I said it, there was a relieved and slightly satisfied (comforted?) look on her face–the perfect feedback. As to your package missing the drop off time–I used humor to express that frustration: “Think the mail dude finally got ate by a dog?”

      • Aimai

        Jeebus, I am so far from being an overreacting or punitive parent that its slightly scary. I’m so laissez faire that free marketers come to me for advice on parenting. I think I’m going to tackle the “I’m sorry” thing head one, with a straightforward analysis of linguistic styles going back to the Sumerians, detouring through ancient Greece and Rome, and wind up suggesting more open ended and less self sacrificing language like “That sounds bad” or “How can I help” or something.

        • tsam

          So was I. I’m a very laissez faire parent too. I don’t know where the sorry thing came from. I suspect it’s insecurity, but I never could quite figure it out. Rather than saying “don’t apologize”, which is an expression of disapproval, I accepted the apology and told them I knew it was an accident and that I wasn’t going to be mad about it.

          I was rarely hard on my kids, and that was only when they did really dangerous things they knew better than to be doing. Even then, I never spanked any of the three of them and I never stayed mad beyond giving them the business over riding their bikes out into traffic or throwing things at each other.

          Now I say that worked, but obviously I can’t say that for sure, since it could have been a case in which she just grew out of that. A phase, if you will. I suspect that creating a safe place for her (even though I was pretty sure I already had), did the trick.

          • Aimai

            Maybe this wasn’t clear but she’s not apologizing for anything that she herself has done. This is a verbal tic that occurs when she thinks you are describing something that requires a response and her go to response is to express an apology that it has happened to you. There is nothing to create a “safe space” for because she has literally not done anything. “There’s no salt on the table in this restaurant” does not require her to say “I’m sorry” like you have just hacked off your foot and are shooting blood across the floor. Its just not serious enough to rise to “I’m sorry.”

            • tsam

              It was clear, and I posted another thought in the wrong spot…

              That almost sounds like just something that pops out of her mouth when she isn’t sure what else to say. She may just feel like she should respond with something, and that’s the first thing that hits? (Not a judgement or diagnosis, just throwing out ideas)

              • Aimai

                Oh, yeah. There are a million reasons why people (let alone why girls) say stuff like this. I’m not worried that its a sign of any great pathology. I’ve just been watching it develop and wondering if I should intervene and I guess now I’ve talked myself into intervening. Because although a few “sorrys”here or there can be merely canadian, or rather endearing, I think at this point its just too pervasive and leaves people with the wrong impression.

        • I’d like to offer some alternatives from the manuscript of my upcoming self help book: “Assertiveness secrets of Conan the Barbarian”

          when a person says “the mailman is late”

          instead of “I’m sorry”

          try saying “I swear he will pay for his incompetence! he will deliver the mail or he will taste my steel!”

          When a person accidentally bumps your elbow

          instead of saying “excuse me”

          try saying “watch your step peasant! You tempt the wrath of Crom!”

          When you live your life like Conan, no one will ever accuse you of being too meek.

          Just ask yourself What would Conan say?

          • Aimai

            I love this. It reminds me of something Robert E. Howard said about Conan as a character. He said it was easy writing adventures for Conan because he didn’t ever have to think of anything clever for Conan to do. He’d just hack his way through every problem.

    • Donalbain

      Have you considered the possibility that your child might be British?

  • D.N. Nation

    Vocal fry in the workplace drives me to drink motor oil. It doesn’t help that the vowel placement in my first name lends itself to being draaaawn? ooooout? like thiiiis?.

    Carry on.

    • MDrew

      It’s lame that people didn’t notice Ira Glass’ vocal fry. But then he is a celebrity, and, in the host chair, probably is likely to get a pass that others won’t.

      That said, I have a hard time putting uptalk, vocal fry, and the kind of weird emphasies you describe in the same category. It can get really pronounced where it becomes a norm, and IMO truly can be jarring.

      But it’s not like only women do them. Someone like the guest speaker in the OP who makes the charge explicit is setting the whole conversation back (I realize some would prefer there simply be no conversation about these things), but as a general matter, I think it would be great if we didn’t have to approach the subject as being about “the way women talk,” or even as about gendered ways of talking.

      Too much uptalk?, too much vocal fry? – all in one place and too pronounced? Is just reeeaaaaally anoooyyyyyiiiinnnggg.

      • D.N. Nation

        If it’s just the way one talks, I probably notice it more than become enraged by it. But when it’s weaponized- when it treats the subject being talked to like a monster not to be poked, when it’s cutesiness is used to brush aside incompetence…

      • MDrew

        …Maybe per Katya below, my problem really is with uptalk and the drawn-out vowels, not with vocal fry.

        I know when one of the Slate podcasts talked about vocal fry a few years ago I had never heard of it, and when they described it I couldn’t say I had ever noticed it before. So I’ll reverse myself on that.

        Thanks to Katya.

        • D.N. Nation

          Yeah, I’m talking more uptalk than anything.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      That’s cool to hate on vocal fry, of course, as any little thing can annoy us, but I’ll just add that there is no objective standard to judge what is a so-called proper way to speak, and all such discussions are rooted in power imbalances around class, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. Strangely enough, it seems that over history the people with the most cultural and economic power have always taken it upon themselves to lecture everyone else on the proper way to speak, which they define, of course, as speaking like they do.

      All I’m saying is, to say that one hates vocal fry is not a statement devoid of politics.

      • Vocal fry and uptalking are class markers. They’re indicative of higher class (=more power), not lower.

        I agree with Katie about Ira’s vocal fry: once you start listening for it you will notice a lot of men have it, and our society’s sexism exposes itself when women’s use of it is examined, but not men’s. Uptalking is certainly more gendered, though.

        • Lost Left Coaster

          If uptalk and vocal fry are associated with power, then why are we having this discussion at all?

          • Snarki, child of Loki

            Because we’re speaking derp to power?

            Are we sure that uptalk isn’t a regional/cultural subgroup thing? Like Valspeak? I think it might be?

            • Anna in PDX

              Yes? It’s sort of a West Coast thing? Is my experience? And usually it’s really incompetent managers who use it to sound cute so you forget they do not know what the hell they are doing?

              I do not like uptalk very much, but I try to give young people for whom it’s the “like/you know” equivalent of the day a pass on it. Managers who use it to sound cute, not so much. Argh.

              • Orbis_Terrarum

                I’ve had two incompetent managers that did exactly that?

                Also, I’m a man in my twenties from the Seattle area, I have vocal fry, and so does my younger brother and and most of my friends of both genders. We also don’t tend to enunciate and call each other “dude” but which sounds like a merger of “dude” and “dud”. Obviously in work setting we talk differently, but it is part of the dialect. I never thought of vocal fry as an especially feminine speech pattern, unlike uptalk.

                The speech patterns of the PNW are more interesting than they are given credit for. In particular, I’ve noticed a big difference between baby boomer Washingtonians, who tend to sound Upper Midwestern, and younger people, who sound Californian or generic western. I guess this tracks the transition of Seattle from Minneapolis-by-the-Pacific to San-Francisco-North.

                • Anna in PDX

                  Agree on all counts! I have a Canadian buddy from Vancouver BC and he reports that he has both vocal fry and uptalk going on, as part of his youthful dialect.

              • Pat

                I’m going to agree that uptalk? is more prevalent in students from upper middle class, suburban settings. I’m also strongly on the side of teaching students to move away from that mode of speaking.

                What we do is try to cultivate a sense of authority in the student. We work on their competence, promoting an awareness of where they are expert and how they contribute to the lab. We also try to help them see the areas where they need to become more facile, more expert, and to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with it. When students find joy in learning, not fear, the tentative vocal patterns tend to fall away on their own accord.

                I describe it as “adopting the voice of authority.” Cause if you’re going to stay in academia, you really, really need one.

                • Why is it more prevalent in those settings, though? It gets pegged as youth culture but if I take your experience as typical, the evidence for that seems to be that science professors don’t talk that way and some of their undergraduate students do,

                  If you listen to NPR, you hear lots of people with important jobs uptalking all over the place. They are probably not trying to be tentative in their statements to the radio reporter.

                • Pat

                  That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Most of the time I hear uptalk? it’s when the students are unsure of their facts. So perhaps what you’re hearing are people who might normally look up a fact quickly before they use them. That would imply that they more typically communicate through writing while at a computer.

                • Fascinating. I have to say I know plenty of over-fifty people who are unsure of what they’re talking about and none of them use uptalk.

        • John Revolta

          There are middle/lower class uptalks too, amiright? Ya know what I’m sayin’? Innit?

          • John Revolta

            In fact now that I think of it I’m convinced that “uptalk” is nothing more than a newer version of “know what I mean?” with the actual words left off.

            • Aimai

              Is that what uptalk is? Saying something at the end of the sentence which prevents the other person from disagreeing? My Aunt (in her 80’s) does this and it drives me bats. She ends everything she says with a satisfied smirk and the upward rising non question “Right?” Since I disagree with her about everything I find this rather stifling. Because I don’t want to have to assent to everything she says, but its rude to scream out “no, not right!” about the kinds of trivial things she’s asserting.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Is that what uptalk is? Saying something at the end of the sentence which prevents the other person from disagreeing?

                No. It’s raising the pitch of your voice at the very end of a(n often short) sentence, giving it the intonation pattern typical of (I guess, non-wh-) questions in English. Anna in PDX, three comments up from here (at the moment) gave a good example using question marks. (I mean, lots of people have been doing that, but hers seems to capture the thing best to the ear-in-my-eye.)

                • Uptalk girl
                  She’s been living in her uptalk world
                  I bet she’s not had a vocal fry guy
                  I bet her momma never told her why

              • John Revolta

                I think it’s not so much preventing the other person from disagreeing as it is an unspoken “do you agree?” or “do you understand?” However, depending on the speaker, it may indeed be used as you said- Amirite or Amirite? Huh?

              • Jackov

                That is rather interesting.

                Residents of Hawai’i similarly use “yeah” at the end of sentences likely stemming from the use of “ne” in Japanese. In both cases, the speaker is seeking agreement/confirmation, but at least to me, it does not come across as an attempt to squash dissent.

                • Aimai

                  I think Irish/English and some forms of lower class English also contain a “yeh” sound at the end of sentences. See also “innit?”

                • Jean-Michel

                  Singaporean English similarly uses the tag “is it?”, probably derived from (and used in the same way as) the Chinese 是吗? shì ma?

    • gmack

      It’s a peculiar thing. I have a really hard time thinking that a problem I have with the way another person speaks is somehow a problem with the other person. Seriously, if someone’s vocal tick annoys me to the point of distraction, that’s clearly my problem, not the other person’s.

      • Anna in PDX

        Well, I used to teach presentation skills and I used to tell people that if they are using a certain filler word (for example) or doing something else that can distract from their message (e.g., uptalk, when done too often) then it is good if they either notice themselves or get feedback from third parties as to whether they are doing something like this. If it distracts from your message it would behoove you to try and vary your communication and/or stop doing the distracting behavior. This can range from verbal things like “you know” or “um” to physical things like fidgeting with your wedding ring or hair.

        For example, in one of the first training sessions I had, I got feedback that I was fidgeting in this way, and I am really glad I got it. It helped me to communicate better. So I think this kind of feedback can be good. Not just complaining about someone’s weird verbal tic, but letting them know so they can perhaps be more aware of it and improve their communication skills.

        • gmack

          Yeah, I agree with that, but it’s tricky. I teach oral presentation skills too, and yes, I try to point out when students engage in verbal/physical acts that distract from their point. But I think it’s important to try to distinguish between, say, personal pet peeves and broader problems in oral presentations. So I might try to correct overuse of verbal fillers (um, for example), or I might encourage more eye contact. Still, I would probably not do all at once, and the focus has to be on whether the thing I’m correcting is genuinely hindering the conveyance of meaning.

        • Pat

          That’s why we don’t focus so much on the verbal tic as on the underlying sense of authority. We want our students to really know where their expertise is, and to be able to develop additional skills readily. When students know they’re competent, they communicate it much more readily.

  • JustRuss

    One problem with using “just” is that it trivializes the request, ie “I’m really not asking you for much, so if you refuse you’re just being an annoying asshole”. I mean, “just” isn’t really helping your cause if you say “My car’s not running right, do think you could just change the oil, rotate the tires, rebuild the carburetor and replace the windshield when you have a couple minutes?”

    I think just works when both parties understand that it really is a small thing you’re requesting, and it’s a gentle reminder that you’re not asking for much. But I’ve had people use it when they have no idea how much work it will take to do what they want. I don’t expect people to know how do my job, but the implication that it’s easy doesn’t sit well.

    I can’t say that I’ve noticed it from women more than men. With the exception of my wife, but that’s another topic.

    • D.N. Nation

      That’s been my occasional issue with “just.” “Just” = “I do not share your expertise in how much/how long this task will take you, but I will feign a sort of parental heat-patting position about it.” It can be a ‘splaining of its own breed.

    • MDrew

      Yep. This.

      This is a very real problem with just, that I try to be aware of, since I am a “just”er.

      Don’t try to play down the size of your request with “just.” If it’s not just anything, then it’s not “just” anything.

    • njorl

      I agree. Just isn’t used out of politeness. Inserting “just” is a manipulative act of self-interest, albeit a fairly minor one.

      It’s also delusional to think use of the word “just” is gendered. If anything, reaction to the use of “just” might be gendered. It might be viewed as more manipulative when women do it because some people are pre-disposed to view women as manipulative. That’s no reason for women to stop using it. It’s a reason for other people to get over their hang-ups.

      • gmack

        Hm. Can’t it be both politeness and manipulation, often dependent on context?

        • MDrew

          It can be either/or depending, yes. Not both, though.

    • Jackov

      “Just” apparently does not register with me when people make requests. However, I bristle when some version of ‘do me a favor’ is included in a work related request. If the request pertains to my professional role then there is no need for it. If the request does not pertain to my role, then the other person should not be making the request in the first place. Favors have no place in the employer/employee relationship. Also that one co-worker never reciprocates.

    • D. C. Sessions

      Per above:

      Yes, too often “just” is used to diminish the imposition being discussed. Which means very, very different things depending on the power relationship, no? (Says /me, imagining the chronically-abused subordinate either being told “I just need you to rewrite the 300-page Hoodoo proposal in time for tomorrow morning’s meeting” vs. asking “just a few hours off to be there when my wife comes out of open-heart surgery.”)

      • Aimai

        Right–exactly this D.C. Sessions. Something can be manipulative or it can be a kind of plea for understandign depending on the relative positions of the speakers in terms of power.

        I’ve mentioned this here before but you really learn this stuff when you are learning a language as an adult, in practice, because you tend to make mistakes w/r/t to power positions because you learn a word without its context. A story that I heard when I was studying anthropology and linguistics with Keith Basso was of a foreign graduate student who was learning the rules about taking out the trash from her American landlady. The landlady used “we” to mean “you, the graduate student tenant” because “we take out the trash on Thursdays” is a nice, polite, indirect way of saying “this is how its done here.” The graduate student heard “we” as a deferential way (since she thought she was of higher status than her landlady) of the landlady saying she would do the trash taking out for the graduate student.

    • marduk

      That’s absolutely my problem with using “just” as well. I don’t understand the position that it’s a politeness- to the contrary it’s always seemed to me to be a rude and manipulative way to make a request.

      And like yourself, I’ve never noticed a marked gender difference in the people who use it.

      • nixnutz

        Yes, this is exactly my perception, and I’m most aware of it when I’m deleting it from my own work emails. I can’t say I’ve ever really been bothered by it from other people.

  • Aimai

    The wonderful movie “In a World” Manages to both attack and surrender to this trope. The entire movie is about a woman using language and performance to break into a man’s world (her father’s world) of voice overs and announcments. Its an adorable movie, really funny and unusual. But the heroine also makes fun of women with sterotypically “babyish” or “vally girl” ways of speaking and she explicitly attacks them for “wanting to be taken seriously in the work world while sounding like little girls.” In fact at the end of the movie she takes on educating them out of these weak, feminine, verbal tics as one of her missions and runs special classes for them. Its a really regressive choice that the character and the filmmakers clearly think of as progressive and it reminds me very much of Pygmalion’s emphasis that with the right accent and speech patterns class differences will simply vanish, the guttersnipe becomes a lady working in a flower shop.

    • cleek

      these weak, feminine, verbal tics

      personally, i’ve never thought of ‘valley girl’ (and its close cousin, upspeak) as weak or feminine. but it does sound childish, to me. and it definitely distracts me from whatever the speaker is trying to say. it’s like reading a note written in Comic Sans bold; the medium jumps out ahead of the message.

      • sapient

        I completely agree with cleek here. I know a lot of young people, and verbal fry and uptalk are very prevalent. When people are speaking like that in conversation, it doesn’t bother me at all. However, it bothers me hugely in radio. I love This American Life, but I have to take a deep breath sometimes to get over Ira Glass’s vocal tics. It’s annoyingly present with a lot of youthful broadcasters. Or maybe it makes them sound youthful, which isn’t a plus in gravitas.

        I don’t like it because it comes from no real regional accent (that I know of) – it’s an affectation of young people who, at some point, used it to be cool with their peers. At least, that is what it sounds like to me. I say this because I did similar things in my college days. It became an impediment though, so I tried to get rid of it.

        • JL

          Why is an age-subcultural speech pattern more of a problem to you than a regional one? In both cases, people pick up speech patterns from the people around them, often without realizing that they were doing it.

      • JL

        It has “girl” in the name. That suggests to me that even if you don’t see it as feminine, other people do.

    • Katya

      Well, I will say that women who intentionally pitch their voices to sound like little girls drive me nuts. Feigned helplessness by competent adults is irritating. So, I sympathized with the heroine in this matter, but I take your point. I do think, however, that there is a distinction between castigating women for using “feminine” patterns of speech and criticizing them for using “childish” patterns of speech. “Just,” “sorry,” and vocal fry are not inherently childish (unlike baby talk), and frankly, they are things that men do, too.

    • cpinva

      “the guttersnipe becomes a lady working in a flower shop.”

      except, if she was really a lady, she wouldn’t be working at all. she’d be home, running the household, that her husband would make more than enough to enable her to do.

      • Aimai

        Its the plot of the play–its her dream to work in a flower shop.

    • gmack

      Back when I was finishing my MA in philosophy, one of the new grad students that year was a woman with a nose ring. She was one of the clear “stars” of the department. A student of critical theory, she went on to get her PhD at Northwestern (which, at least at the time, was a well regarded department in critical theory, as I recall). Anyway, one of the professors in this department, an analytic type with a Tom Selleck mustache (and one of the reasons why I reflexively associate analytic philosophy with assholes–sorry Bijan and Matt Weiner!), spent a one of our seminar breaks going on about her nose ring (she wasn’t present). He was talking about how smart she probably was but how he couldn’t pay attention to anything she said because “all I see is that damned nose ring bobbing up and down,” and so on.

      I know we all find various things irritating or distracting, and sometimes these annoyances can be mildly amusing (see Seinfeld, for instance). But really, they also often come from a nasty place and generally should be avoided.

      • Aimai

        One of my best friends was a graduate student in Political Science. I have known a lot of brilliant people in my day but she is far and away the most brilliant. But she was extremely fat–fat in a way that is coded, in modern america, as lower class/white trash. The disbelief expressed by the lawyers at the Bar Foundation,where we both had a fellowship, that such a person had the nerve to speak up was really kind of amazing. Of course they were all terrified of her writing and her rapier like ability to cut their arguments to pieces. And they were very proud of her, as well. But you could see it in the faces of visiting scholars when she sat down at the seminar table. They all thought “but, isn’t she a secretary or something? Shouldn’t she keep her mouth shut?”

    • Jean-Michel

      I haven’t seen the movie, but I did listen to an interview where she described vocal fry as “sexy baby vocal virus” and asserted that women should sound “sophisticated and sexy” like Lauren Bacall, oblivious to the fact that a) she’d just used the word “sexy” to describe both the phenomenon she’s criticizing and what she believes to be its opposite, accidentally demonstrating that “sexy” is a much more fluid category than she seems to believe, b) that Bell herself slips into vocal fry quite frequently, not just when she’s “in character” (I know her mainly from Childrens Hospital) but even in the interview itself, and c) vocal fry results from attempting to speak in a register lower than your natural one, so in other words asking women everywhere to start trying to talk like Anne Bancroft is actually going to make it more ubiquitous.

  • Katya

    The piece on This American Life on vocal fry is really worth a listen. People wrote in angry comments about women who spoke that way, and not one of them seemed to realize that Ira Glass’s speech is wall-to-wall vocal fry. It’s so obviously about putting down young women. I just couldn’t figure out what was so bad about vocal fry other than that young women were using it. It certainly beats upspeak, which really does make people sound less authoritative.

    • njorl

      I wonder if it’s because vocal fry tends to pitch the voice deeper. It might strike some people as infringing on a male prerogative when a woman does it. If Glass spent half his show breaking into falsetto, people would notice that.

      I’ve noticed that it is usually used to make an aside for a little bit of levity, or to achieve a little distance from a serious topic. Though useful rhetorically, this can open a speaker to accusations of “unseriousness” which are much more likely to be thrown at women than men.

      • I’m not sure that’s it(eta pitching voice deeper). I have a high, light register and a lower, alto register, and I find it difficult to sustain a breath to the end of the sentence, often, when I’m trying to find something more neutral. Fry seems like a way of dealing with that.

        There’s a trained male announcer in the story, and if you listen closely, you can hear his voice hollows out at the end of a sentence, as if he’s learned a way to avoid vocal fry.

    • Definitely, it seems like uptalk is so common now among both genders that people have to find some other change that seems to be specific to young women to hate. When I was in high school, you heard similar hate for the words “I feel”.

      I came back from a summer in England saying “sorry” when I didn’t hear someone well. I have no idea what I used to say.

      • nixnutz

        “I feel like” drives me crazy but it’s only in the last couple years that I’ve really noticed it everywhere, and of course it only really annoys me because I can’t stop myself from using it too.

  • RPorrofatto

    I’m sorry, but I just think all this criticism of how we speak is so much fucking elitist bullshit (using a mix of newly unacceptable politesse with old-stye Bensonhurst bada-bingism) whether the elite is patriarchal or just bovine. I can’t imagine the constant self-analysis this criticism must engender in anyone who might take it to heart, not to mention the insecurity.

    I’ve heard fascinating, intelligent speech from uptalkers and sorryists of either gender, and unmitigated drivel from acceptably articulate assholes.

    Just my opinion.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      Exactly. Policing speech is often sexist, but it is also based in power relations around class, race, ethnicity, etc., and speech pedants are usually enforcing a certain standard that (shockingly enough!) is based on how they speak.

      I think, frankly, that people who find themselves annoyed by uptalk or vocal fry or things like that should examine their own prejudices and look for the answer within themselves rather than wish that the people of the world spoke in ways that they found more palatable.

      • cleek

        iffums i wuz to speeks to yoo onwee in bwaybway talks, likes i mite do to my deer pweshuss wittle catsums? wooodin yoo tink it say sommin abaut mees intewwijunce? or wood dat juss be youssums pwejoodisss?

        • Lost Left Coaster

          Oh, you got me good there! You’re right, and with your brilliant baby talk example, you have rendered the entire history of prejudice against speech patterns associated with marginalized genders, economic classes, ethnic groups, races, etc., completely moot. Well-played.

          • cleek

            people deliberately marginalizing themselves by adopting unconventional speech patterns isn’t about a history of anything. it’s about people not caring if they’re taken seriously.

            • Aimai

              Obviously that is entirely wrong–even when it comes to baby talk. Baby talk–which damned few people do these days–is not about “not caring if you are taken seriously” but is a kind of argument about being taken seriously in a different framework than the one you are assuming. Baby talk, last used probably by Marilyn Monroe in a movie, is a way of structuring a power relationship in which the more powerless person (the woman) can get crumbs of power from a man. Its not used woman to woman and its sometimes used from men to women for the same reason, as a form of cozening or pillow talk.

              Even baby talk is all about power.

              • cleek

                ‘baby talk’ was clearly an exaggerated example.

                and i respectfully disagree that it’s ‘wrong’. there are widely-used patterns of speech which pretty much guarantee that the speaker will be taken less seriously in many contexts. but people do it anyway. so, either they don’t know or they don’t care. (and yes, “don’t care” is a big subject)

                • Aimai

                  People are used to not being taken seriously. There are a lot of people–women, minorities, children, old women, lower classes who are very used to not being taken seriously no matter what the circumstances or how they talk. Accusing people of “not knowing” what is happening is really insulting. Speaking as a woman I can assure you that how you speak doesn’t guarantee that you will be taken seriously. Its who you are and who is listening that determines whether what you say is taken seriously.

                • cleek

                  Accusing people of “not knowing” what is happening is really insulting.

                  um, no. identifying a group of people is not an insult.

                  as a woman I can assure you that how you speak doesn’t guarantee that you will be taken seriously.

                  nobody has that guarantee.

                  but deliberately putting up obstacles doesn’t help anyone.

                • Aimai

                  No one is “deliberately putting up obstacles” to being taken seriously. That is a gloss you are putting on other people’s linguistic situations. And as for a “guarantee” of being taken seriously–white men of a certain age are basically guaranteed to be taken seriously in most social interactions until they blow it by being exposed as belonging to a lower class, by being coded as feminine/gay, or revealing a speech impediment or a regional dialect that is disfavored. Women–as people are trying to tell you on this thread–can be faulted for being too nice, too submissive, too direct, too indirect, too bitchy, too deferential, too harsh, or too babyish.

                • cleek

                  No one is “deliberately putting up obstacles” to being taken seriously.

                  do people choose how they present themselves to the world?

                  white men of a certain age are basically guaranteed to be taken seriously in most social interactions

                  that would be great! but i assure you, again, there is no such guarantee.

                • Aimai

                  People may have some agency in how they present themselves to the world, sure. But that is very circumscribed by cultural and social factors influencing the way their attempts are seen or received by the world. Self presentation is not the only thing going on. Women, visible minorities, people with visible physical handicaps, people with class markers are preceeded in a social interaction by a lot of shit that defines how they are understood by their interlocutors. Sometimes speech patterns can overcome that but sometimes they can’t. In the words of Doctor Johnson:

                  I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


                  Women speaking high level science talk will tell you that they are frequently misheard or ignored by those listening to them on the grounds that the kinds of things they are saying are too complex for them to really understand or mean. Minorities will tell you the same thing–sometimes because their accent is not understood, sometimes because the disjuncture between what they are saying and sterotypes about what their kind of person is supposed to know is just too wide.

                • Malaclypse

                  that would be great! but i assure you, again, there is no such guarantee.

                  As a middle-aged white male, the only caveat to the idea that people will take me seriously, on any topic, until I give evidence for them not to, is that I need to be dressed appropriately. Certain accents would also render the guarantee problematic.

            • JL

              What? You think people are intentionally speaking in “unconventional” ways because they don’t care whether they’re taken seriously and want to be marginalized? This is a really bizarre interpretation of how people learn and adopt speech patterns.

        • gmack

          No. I would likely think you were trying to screw with me for some reason, and I might either be amused, indifferent, irritated, or any number of other possible responses, depending on the context and our prior relationship.

        • RPorrofatto

          Clearly, we all adjust how we speak to conform with societal expectations, especially when it comes to making a paycheck or appearing “intelligent.” However, I work for all kinds of business, where people say things like “make the ask” for “request” or “I can double-click on that for you” for “I can give you a more detailed explanation,” but I haven’t yet schtupped that far.

          • Aimai

            Doesn’t every economic niche and social group have its in talk and its out talk? “make the ask” is annoying but its associated with a certain kind of practice: politics, charity work, sales. It segues over from that to other fields and makes itself annoying but every field has its own terms of art and shibboleths.

    • wengler

      This is first time I have ever heard the terms ‘uptalk’ or ‘vocal fry’. Both seem like they could be the center of a Portlandia sketch.

      • Same, and agreed. I am hearing Fred & Carrie now, in multiple roles (the bookstore owners will have strong views here).

      • Anna in PDX

        Both uptalk and vocal fry are very real aspects of our local young people dialect. (Both genders.) They could be funny in Portlandia, I guess. To me, they often go with the “like/you know” thing (as I sort of said upthread). And I believe, though I have nto traveled enough up or down coast to be sure, that this is a generalized West Coast thing similar to “like/you know”. Given the homogenization of dialects these days because of mass media, it probably isn’t even limited to West Coast. Much like valley speak, some elements of which I used to notice wherever I was in the U.S.

      • Jean-Michel

        Vocal fry used to be (and still is, in linguistics circles) called “creaky voice,” until it was noticed by people who assumed nobody else had ever noticed it before and gave it a new name.

  • John Selmer Dix

    I have a deep conviction that language is the last frontier for bigotry. The idea that certain races are naturally superior to others is laughable now, but a lot of people still buy into the idea that there’s a “wrong” way to speak English, or that the language or dialect you speak determines how intelligent you are.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      Considering the diversity of ‘English’ variants, the idea that there are RIGHT and WRONG ways to speak English marks one as an ignorant asshole.

      ya suss it, mate?

      • Aimai

        I haven’t the nous, of a mouse.

      • wjts

        You can, to my mind, speak any given dialect or register of English correctly or incorrectly, but the idea that any one of them is somehow intrinsically superior or “more correct” (rather than “more contextually appropriate”) than any other is ridiculous.

        • SamInMpls

          Sure. English is like BBQ, pizza and guacamole in that respect.

    • tsam

      I have a deep conviction that language is the last frontier for bigotry

      It certainly is where African Americans are concerned. Lots and lots of victim blaming over dialects.

  • charliekilian

    I actually adopted some of these speaking patterns intentionally in the workplace to make the women around me more comfortable. And also as a small protest against the constant denigration of anything coded as feminine. And guess what? Nobody notices when a man does it. Just like vocal fry.

    Another thing that bugs me: When people deride the selfie. Give me a break. Everyone takes selfies. It’s only when women do it that people see evidence of narcissism.

    • MDrew

      What a very modern man you are.

    • Redwood Rhiadra

      *Everyone* takes selfies? Some of us actively avoid being photographed, by anyone.

      (Except for the picture on my state ID card, I haven’t posed for a photograph in at least a dozen years. Although I’m well aware I’m probably in the background of dozens of random street pictures, and of course surveillance cameras are everywhere, but those are things I can’t do anything about.)

      • Lee Rudolph

        those are things I can’t do anything about

        Stealth technology.

        Carrying around radioisotopes doesn’t work so well, now that everyone’s gone digital.

      • SamInMpls

        The point being that while not *everyone* takes selfies, when young women take them it occasionally bothers other people so much that a few of them feel justified in making death threats.

    • wengler

      No. Not everyone takes selfies. In fact, I’d say the majority of people do not.

      • Aimai

        You’d be wrong.

        • John Revolta

          Really? Jeez, I must really be on the fringes of society.

          • Lee Rudolph

            Me too. Fringeswise, I mean.

            • Aimai

              Good god, even I’ve taken a selfie or two to show something to someone–new glasses, a book I’m reading. People really use the images function on their phone in a variety of wonderful ways. The idea behind the word “selffie” is that its somehow “selfish” or solipsistic or vain but I really don’t see it that way and I’m 54. I see people using this as a way of fixing relationships–selfies with othe people, of writing oneself into a landscape that you want to memoriallize (selfies on tour), of communicating with loved ones who are far away (a selfie with a new haircut, a picture of myself in a mask making hot pepper harissa for my daughter, a choice between new glasses). These are all different ways of taking a picture of oneself in a landscape, or with an object, that is no different from the ways people have always chosen to memorialize themselves even when they had to hire a portrait painter to do so. Do people act like Henry the VIII was taking a “selfie” when he hired Hans Holbein to make a portrait of him?

              • John Revolta

                Is Henry VIII part of “the majority of people”?

                Mind you, I had a friend take a picture of me standing next to Ray Charles’ tour bus one time. Does that count?

                • Aimai

                  No, Henry VIII is just an example of the ubiquity of self representation throughout human history. But there are literally millions of people with cel phones most of them snapping away all the time–cel phones have utterly changed our relationship with cameras as digitalization has changed our relationship with film. Since people are not limited w/r/t storage or duplication, can use their phones to send images not just store them, they are using most people are using their phones as cameras and most people are taking pictures, even selfies, much more than people here are assuming. Most people, not even just some people–since most users are younger than the average LGM poster and have an entirely different relationship with this new medium.

                  I can see that people like to think that their usage is typical–but its not. Millions of people are taking selfies. Its not a fringe behavior.

                • Pat

                  What I’ve noticed about selfie-taking among my teenage daughter and her friends is that it appears to have improved their body self-images. A lot. They don’t worry as much about always looking perfect. The selfie is about conveying emotion and mood, far more than about being glam or beautiful. They are holding their appearance to a different standard – it needs to communicate.

                  My hope is that the selfie prevalence will hammer the cosmetic, diet, and beauty industries. Even a little hammering will help.

            • jim, some guy in iowa

              hah. you guys are trying to make me feel civilized and all. The great thing, personally, about a selfie is that they can be just as freaking atrocious to look at as a picture of yourself someone else took. They just eliminate the middleman

  • D. C. Sessions

    Submissive? Yeah, the solution to that is to be — what? — bitchy? Bossy?

    Rule #1 is that being a woman means you’re wrong no matter what. Polite speech is a sign that you don’t have what it takes, anything else is proof that you …

    Oh, never mind. There’s always a reason.

    As for “sorry,” in excess it can be a bit jarring, as when coming from someone who wasn’t born at the time described and regarding something that isn’t painful to recall. When someone bumps into me, though, I prefer to just say, “no harm done!” with a smile.

    • Aimai


    • Feathers

      There was an article a few years back that really sums this up well Stepford Women in the Workplace. It talks about the problem of advice for women always being in the form of makeover tips, which not only are undermining, but give the idea that women in the workplace need to already be whatever your fantasy female might be.

      The Stepford Rule: If your reaction to a woman’s work is to offer her makeover tips, you are being misogynist.

      Some of the problem is someone hears “avoid vocal fry” in training for public speaking, and translates that into people with vocal fry are wrong and bad (but somehow only noticeable if they are a woman). Advice becomes rules far too easily.

  • MattMinus

    I just have one question. Do you all tie an onion to your belt before complaining that some people talk differently than you do?

  • KS was in grade school rather than grad school when I saw her last, but I will observe that at ten her spoken discourse included complex subordinate clauses. I recognized in her a child whose English was derived from reading and from adult conversation (her mother, my friend, was and remains a woman of keen and caustic intelligence, and her father was himself no slouch) rather than from the prattling of her notional peers. Her contributions to LGM have constituted an unalloyed delight to this old, if ambiguous, family friend.

  • tsam

    that politeness is the same thing as submissiveness

    The problem is that among many men, that’s considered true. BE A MAN, STAND UP FOR YOURSELF–when you get the wrong condiment on a burger, you’re supposed to go all agro on the poor kid who handed you the food. Of course men like this want women to be demure–even when asking men to do things like not stare at their sister’s boobs. More of the same double standards. Me strong man, you pretty girl.

    Like a certain genius said in a certain genius film: Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.

  • Warren Terra

    I think this focus on “just” is silly, and the speaker addressing a room full of students bout their mannerisms sounds ludicrous – but there are huge issues with how women and men are often trained to behave differently that can affect their success in science, and that I wonder how to combat. I’ve frequently seen young woman graduate students whose abilities and dedication I greatly admire but who aren’t getting the recognition they deserve and who are even not getting the education they could because they refuse to make a spectacle of themselves – they don’t interrupt people, they are too easily talked over, they aren’t confrontational or disputatious, they don’t talk up themselves and their achievements enough. In short, they aren’t enough of an asshole. Being enough of an asshole is actually important (and, sadly, there often seems no penalty to being too much of one).

    Now, obviously, lecturing a room full of students on the need to be jerks seems likely to fail, especially coming from a dude. I don’t really have a good suggestion for how to address this. And maybe our society is solving it on its own; by far the worst sufferers from excessive schmuck deficiency these days tend to be female foreign students, though it still affects young women born and raised here.

    Still, I’d suggest that even though it’s a minefield and it’s a difficult subject to talk about without beclowning one’s self, it really is a thing we need to work on.

    • cpinva

      apparently (and I suspect this has a long human history), being an asshole is somehow associated with being successful an powerful. and, I must admit, I’ve done it myself, but (at least I like to think) only when having to deal with someone else who’s being an asshole, in order to try and establish themselves at the top of power structure. I don’t do it just to do it.

      when we have new hires, the senior team coordinators (such as myself) are assigned two or three to act as on the job instructors for, after their first phase of classroom training. this includes both technical/administrative & social aspects of the job. over the past 30 years, I have noticed a positive trend in the young women we’ve hired: they are much more outwardly confident in themselves than they used to appear. I attribute this, in large part, to our societal shift as a whole, which has, overall (in spite of small steps back), been a positive thing.

      the guys have had a tendency to overestimate their technical competence, so they have to be pulled back a bit, the women historically not so much, so they needed a bit of more positive reinforcement. it seems, to me anyway, that they’ve hit parity out of the blocks, which is a good thing. I’d rather have to pull them back a little, then to constantly having to be pushing them. perhaps it’s an occupational thing, but the women I deal with professionally don’t seem to suffer from the infantilization of speech that (I think) is the subject of “vocal fry”. maybe they did it before they went to college, and accounting beat it out of them, or maybe they didn’t, I have no idea. whatever the reason, the women I deal with (admittedly, a mostly older group) don’t do it at work.

      • John Revolta

        Human history, hell. This is pure ape behavior. It worked for them and it works for us.

    • JL

      Maybe if enough non-schmucks enter science fields, especially if they stick around long enough to gain some power, the culture will change and the schmuck advantage will go away.

      As someone else in a science field, I think that would be nice.

      • I cling to this.

        I feel pretty good about a lot of my quotidian efforts in this regard. Some are not so great.

  • cpinva

    I’m not certain I quite understand what “vocal fry” even means. the impression I get, is that it’s a style of speaking that comes off as infantile, and that young women are prone to do it. I’m thinking that if someone did that to me, I’d probably find it annoying, assuming I’m even correct in what it is.

    and this is why I went into the field I did, I don’t have to spend nearly as much of my time interacting with other people and being annoyed by them. being anti-social has its advantages.

    • Aimai

      I just listened to a video description of vocal fry and the entire thing is a tempest in a tea pot. First of all–some of the examples are just a New Jersey accent. Second of all, the more specific examples are just a style of emphasis on a few words. Every language does this and every person who is telling a story or otherwise using speech performatively (as in telling a story, repeating a conversation, trying to express an emotion) will do this in one way or another. We draw words out, we raise or lower the pitch, we do imitations of other people’s speech forms (northerners slip into southern dialect, southerners imitate northerners, men go into falsetto, women drop their voices). This is incredibly common–in fact its integral to human speech because it enables people to vary what they are saying to catch and hold your attention. People don’t notice it when it is the form they are expecting and they do notice (and presumably dislike it) when it takes the form of a younger or older cohort because people are stupid and insular like that. But “vocal fry” is absolutely nothing new, its not specific to women, and its not a sign of infantile thought or intent.

    • cleek

      I’m not certain I quite understand what “vocal fry” even means.

      it’s when you slow down and drag out a vowel so much that it starts to sound creaky. it sounds weary and bored, like you’re starting to fall asleep in the middle of the word.

      it’s almost the opposite of upspeak.

    • SamInMpls

      Slate’s Culture Gabfest covered it in a podcast in 2011.

  • kped

    Just come to Canada if you are worried about saying sorry. We say it, men and women, all the time. To the point where I walk away half the time wondering what either of us were apologizing for. “We almost walked through the door at the same time…better say sorry”

    We also say “Thank you” a lot. Like, someone will deliver me mail, I’ll thank them, then the’ll thank me. I’m not sure which of us is correct…but we keep doing it!

    • Also very Southern. We apologize for everything, except racism and treason.

      • Vance Maverick

        Do you say “thank you” for those?

        • Lee Rudolph

          Why, thank you, suh, don’t mind if I do!

          • rea

            Bless your heart . . .

    • Jackov

      I always assumed Canadians were apologizing for Leafs fans and appreciated the gesture.

  • SamInMpls

    I think that I get why a headline like “Are you eating too much fruit?” triggers a person’s Beauty Myth bullshit alarm but if one actually reads the article there is some good advice from Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN.

    If you have health insurance and you are dealing with actual obesity, as opposed to simply trying to lose a few extra pounds, I recommend seeing a Registered Dietitian. To borrow a phrase from Wilford Brimley: “They’ll help you live a better life.”

  • that kid in the corner

    At the risk of sounding like a prescriptivist, I’ll add that saying

    I sent a memo to my work teammates about the “J” word and suggested a moratorium on using it. We talked about what it seemed to imply (everyone agreed) and how different that message was from the way we saw ourselves: trusted advisors, true partners, win-win champions of customer success

    makes me want to shove Leanse off a (low) bridge (onto a pile of (itchy) mattresses).

    • Lee Rudolph

      Is this a Trolley Problem?

      Because, if I could save anyone at all from being on the other end of the phone from someone who sees h/h role as being a win-win champion of customer success, I’d be … less kind than you.

  • how all our sentences sounded like questions

    Wouldn’t that make them Canadian?

    “Sooooo, I went to the store today……you know?”

  • mch

    Coming very late to this, with apologies for not reading all the comments. Of course consideration of others is an absolute good (and it is probably something females are better practiced at than males). To the extent that sorries and statements voiced as questions are about that, fine. But I would say that, after teaching 18 to 22 year old girls/women and men/boys for nearly 40 years, I worry more about the way these girl-women are often hard to hear in class (not so outside it, so it’s not my aging ears) when their male compatriots are not, and the way the statement as question plainly does not arise out of consideration for others but out of self-doubt and maybe even self-effacement.

    I do not believe sports are “the answer.” But let’s take, say, Carly Lloyd and Abby Wambach as our guides here. One fine feature of the final game was the way the two sides were so polite to one another, sometimes helping the other side’s person up or patting someone you’d just fouled, as if to say, “sorry.” Which didn’t mean there weren’t fouls, some intentional or at least irresponsible, now and then. It certainly did not mean that each team, and each team’s players, did not play with all their/her hearts. (Japan’s fortitude and persistence in the face of overwhelming odds were inspiring.)

    This post is reminding me of the way many women athletes, as women’s sports gained a new status in the 1980’s and 1990’s, began making a point of being beautiful in conventional ways. Long finger nails and elaborate hairdos for runners, for instance. Fashion statements by tennis players. A double-edged sword. I like playing with hair and nails (well, I don’t bother with those) and clothes, too! But there was was an element of concession at work, too.

    Less of that in women’s soccer today, god love ’em all. I don’t know what’s up with all the long-hair and pony-tails (really, swimmers dispense with that — it must be so much work after every game just to do the hairdrying! Though maybe that work is soothing and fun). Still, were I playing soccer at this level, I am sure I would be wearing the “pixie” of my youth.

  • LiveFreeOrShop

    Well, a bit of overreach here, KS. Probably would have been better to just link to Cameron’s very valuable and more nuanced article.

    If I were to write a blog post based on my own experience, I would have said that very few women over 40 use either high-rising terminal or creaky voice. Nor do any males. Among those in their 30s and younger, it shows up more frequently, but it’s still not ubiquitous by any means.

    So those two strike me as generational traits, and only among certain demographic subgroups. Predominantly white. And “just” is a non-issue; everyone uses “just” in the many ways Cameron mentions.

    Ah, but what’s my viewpoint? I’m a 60+ male who has lived and worked in a major northeast urban environment for over 40 years. And, uhhh, SK…you need to get out more–you sure don’t seem to have spent much time working or socializing in the inner city, eh? No high-rising terminals and creaky voices in Bed-Sty. Or the Shul. Or the bodegas. Or…

    Personally, I dislike both the high-rising terminal and creaky voice. The former because when I hear a question, I feel I should answer. So it’s a false cue, if you will. I get confused. The latter is simply difficult to understand. It demands that I make a greater effort to listen than I need to, which gets tiring after a while.

  • Fresh Air did a piece on this today, if that’s something you’re going to spend an hour of your life listening to.

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