Read this out loud:
You’re giving a presentation? That’s… good news? Except that you’re a little nervous? And hesitant? And so you start raising your pitch at the end of every sentence? Everything you say starts to sound like a question, even when you know what you’re talking about? And the people you talk to about your presentation don’t really know if you can do it? And every conversation with you is a bit irritating?
The quick summary
Theoretically, every sentence in the paragraph above is a statement, but when we add a rising terminal at the end of each sentence, it sounds as if we’re asking a question.
Raising your pitch at the end of a statement makes that statement sound like a question. Whether you’re communicating in person, online, or over the phone, this speech pattern can make you sound less confident, less credible, and uncertain about your content.
This article talks about why we do it, and how to stop.
What is this linguistic thing called?
It has a few names: HRI (high rising intonation), “uptalk”, “upspeak”, and HRT (high rising terminal). In the UK, it is sometimes called AQI (Australian question intonation), as it was once associated with Australian English, but the speech pattern is a common feature of many variants of English in the UK and further afield. It is common on the west coast of the US too, where it has been popularised as “Valley Girl Speak”, and worldwide it seems to be an increasingly common characteristic amongst younger speakers. Unfortunately, it’s more common in women than in men (we’ll look at why this is a problem in a moment).
Research indicates that this speech pattern has been around since WW2, and possibly for longer.
High rising intonation (HRI) also occurs in a number of non-English languages, although this article focuses on English.
What happens when you turn your statements into questions?
Using HQI without thinking and too often can make you sound:
- less credible (it’s hard to believe someone if it sounds as if they’re questioning themselves!)
- less confident (unsure of yourself or your content)
- less assertive
- less authoritative and/or powerful
Why might this be a problem?
We’re often selling ourselves or our ideas. Whether you’re trying to make new friends, applying for a new job, asking for funding for a project, or you want to make a great first impression with a potential partner, credibility and confidence are key.
Being assertive might be helpful, too.
In some contexts, you need to show that you have authority (managerial or executive roles, perhaps) or power (the ability to say no, direct the action, and get people to implement your ideas).
If you’re using HRI too much or without being conscious of how you are using it, then you’re likely to come across as uncertain, lacking in confidence, less believable, and perhaps even less trustworthy. All in all, you’re unlikely to impress or persuade employers, funding agencies, friends, partners, or anyone else for that matter.
The bottom line: you (probably) won’t leave a good impression.
This doesn’t sound good. Are there any positives to using HRI?
Yes! When used consciously, it can:
- invite the opinions of others: a vocal “so what do you think?”
- be used as a shortcut for asking for more information or to express doubt: “Seriously?”
- come across as indirect and polite – especially in cultures that favour indirect speech
- if you are in a position of high power, it can tone down your natural assertiveness and make you appear less aggressive or dominant, and more collaborative
Why is High Rising Intonation a particular problem for women?
Although HRI is now used across genders and ages, it tends to be associated as something that appears more in the speech of female speakers.
This is partly because society still has expectations about the “good little woman” who is:
- not as powerful or authoritative as their male counterparts,
- not confident,
- not assertive,
- and perhaps not as credible as their male counterparts.
Using HRI reinforces these ideas.
It also turns out that if a speech pattern is associated primarily with women, it is thought to be more negative.
“When certain linguistic traits are tied to women … they often will be assigned a negative attribute without any actual evidence”.
– Anne Charity Hudley, Linguist at the College of William & Mary
The bottom line: until society changes and values linguistic traits associated with men and women equally, it might be an idea to tone down HRI if you’re a female or part of a minority group.
The good news: you can tone down HRI. Here’s how.
Here are five things that you can do to reduce your use of HRI in your conversations and talks.
#1 Become aware of how you speak
Most of us are blissfully unaware of how we speak. The next time you go into a meeting or meet with friends, use the recording function on your phone and take some samples of your conversations. Do this a few times so that you have a representative sample of how you speak and identify whether you have a problem or not.
Alternatively, ask your friends, family, and colleagues if they’ve noticed you using HRI.
#2 Uncover the cause
The next 3 tips are about controlling and toning down HRI, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could understand why you do it, and then remove or change the cause? Listen to your recording and think about why you might have used HRI in different contexts.
Here are some common causes of HRI:
- nerves (leading to hesitation or uncertainty)
- not knowing your content well enough / lack of knowledge
- not BELIEVING that you know your content well enough or lacking confidence
- lying or exaggerating
- feeling threatened by a dominant personality
- being in an unfamiliar situation
If you can uncover what causes YOUR high rising intonation, you can assess whether you can eliminate some or all of the causes.
#3 Practise speaking purposefully
Once you’re aware of HRI, take the time to speak with purpose. Work on using shorter sentences, incorporate more pauses, and think about what you want to say before you say it.
Bonus: we tend to raise our tone when we have a list to “signal” that there are commas. For example, “Mary is a brilliant biologist who researches proteins, dances the night away in local salsa clubs, and runs half-marathons in her spare time.” If HRI is a problem for you, simplify your sentences and avoid unnecessary lists.
#4 Consciously lower your tone
Do some exercises to identify your vocal range, and practise speaking at the lower end of your range. This will not only give your content more gravitas, but it will make any uses of HRI less negative – because they’ll be lower.
#5 Slow down and don’t forget to pause
If you are a fast speaker, try slowing down a bit. This will give you time to think before you speak and remember to lower your tone and speak with purpose. At the very least, start pausing more between sentences or ideas. That will allow people time to digest what you’ve said, allow you to gauge their response, and because pauses add gravity to your words, you might be able to mitigate any damage done with HRI.
A word of warning: context is everything
Research has shown that HRI isn’t always bad: in some situations, leaders use more HRI than subordinates, and that people in power can use HRI without losing credibility.
Having said that, in my experience of coaching presenters and public speakers, and of helping people develop stronger communication skills, I’ve found that in most situations, cutting down on HRI not only makes people appear more confident, but it makes them FEEL more confident, too.
As a bonus: controlling HRI can impact every conversation that you have, because your voice is a constant whether you are speaking to people face-to-face, in a Zoom call, or over the phone.
Over to you
What do you think abouthigh rising intonation? Does it bother you when other people “go high”? Is it something you do yourself, sometimes with negative effects? I’d love to know!