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How to Kill Your Inner Valley Girl

Vivia Chen

October 16, 2012

Sunbathing_© olly - Fotolia.comI know this will make me sound like an old fogy, but the way some young women talk drives me crazy. What bugs me is all that "up-talk," where everything they utter—even simple declarative sentences—sounds like a string of questions from a sulky teenager. I used to think that they would grow out of it, but, increasingly, I'm bumping into midlevel associates who speak with that kind of inflection.

Thankfully, I haven't met any female partners who speak "up-talk." I don't know if that's because today's Valley girls have not yet arrived at the gates of partnership, or they're not making the cut. In any case, it behooves women to pay attention to how they speak and comport themselves. Too often, women sound much too girlish—and tentative—than they should.

So what can you do to make sure that you don't sabotage yourself with your verbal style? You might check out consultant Tara Sophia Mohr's  list of the types of girl-speak to avoid. Here's what Mohr writes in Huffington Post:

1. Lose the "just." "I'm just wondering ..." "I just think ..." "I just want to add ..." Mohr says that "'just' demeans what you have to say" and "shrinks your power."

2. Drop "actually" too. "I actually have a question." " I actually want to add something." Mohr says "actually" makes it sound like you're surprised by your own ideas.

3. Don't say that you are probably wrong. "I haven't researched this much but ..." "I'm just thinking off the top of my head but ..."

4. Don't  preface your statement by saying, "I'll take just a minute." Mohr says the phrase "sounds apologetic and implies that you don't think what you are about to say is worthy of time and attention."

5. Cut the questioning tone. This is, of course, my personal pet peeve. Mohr suggests lowering the tone at the end of a sentence. (If in doubt, think Maggie Thatcher.)

6. Don't ask a question when you are expressing an idea. "When you have something to say, don't couch it in a question," says Mohr. Example: "What about this approach?" or "What do you think of doing it that way?"

Mohr adds that there sometimes are "strategic reasons to use a question rather than a statement," such as when there might be resistance to an idea. But she warns that women should be mindful that they're phrasing ideas into questions because they fear conflict, visibility, or power.

That's a lot of "don'ts." So what can women affirmatively do? Mohr says it's effective to take your time when you're speaking:

When we don't feel we have the right to take up space in a meeting or conversation, or when we are nervous, we tend to rush, and never leave a moment without words. Brief pauses between your sentences connote confidence and a sense of comfort in the role of speaker. They allow the listener to absorb what you are saying and give you a moment to gather a deep breath and collect your thoughts.

I hate to admit it, but I'm guilty of many of the speech patterns she warns women about.

Anyway, I just wanted to take just a minute to pass along this bit of advice. I know it might be totally wrong and irrelevant, but I think Mohr makes some good points, right? Actually, what do you think?

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Upspeak drives me nuts in the office. It is annoying enough to get situated beside a bevy of college girls loudly exclaiming every thought that pops in their head while enjoying dinner at a restaurant, but those who come into the workforce need to realize it kills their creditability among superiors and colleagues. There are several young people who have very strong habits of 'upspeak' ("lifting the end of every sentence, like literally!") where I work and even one male who has extreme vocal fry - every time he is on a call I want to give him a lozenge.

Mentors who wish to encourage less tentative speaking patterns and body language should consider responding positively and receptively to young associates' first attempts to express ideas. This rarely happens, since young associates are very often wrong in these first attempts. The response then exacerbates the problem.

I strongly disagree with Liz Sparrowe's comment earlier. The mannerisms listed as undesirable are common, not to women, but to status. They are not inherently feminine or a natural part of women's communication. Children, servants, and those of lower status in a power structure use these signals to avoid posing a challenge to the more powerful figures. These mannerisms, like lowering the gaze, shifting your weight, and other physical signals, have been made socially normative to women because they signal subservience. Just watch a woman who is confident in her status speak to someone who is obviously under her authority (for a gender-typed example, a young nanny speaking to small children) - these mannerisms disappear. Similarly, you will see many men in junior or lower-status roles use similar signals when interacting with a much more powerful person of either gender. If you want to rise in trust and authority within a group, it helps to signal confidence and high status with words and body language.

This article strongly suggests that women in the legal world and the work force generally should strive to sound more like men, and to lose the social conventions of female speech that exist in other areas of our society. It's also fairly ageist, implying that the way older women speak is substantively better than the way younger women do. Old feminism -- the kind of feminism that suggests males and females are essentially the same -- has taken a major hit in recent times, and has likely been bad for women. Women are different. Women speak differently. Allowing female conventions to take an equal place next to male conventions instead of attempting to eradicate them seems to me entirely more feminist, helpful, and exciting than the alternative.

I disagree with the last one. You sometimes need to ask "What about this approach?" for legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with putting yourself down.

Fine points, but the environment also has to be considered. For example, some women unconsciously speak quickly because men have a tendency to speak over them. I sometimes get the impression that men prefer it when women belittle themselves. Direct women are typed as overly-aggressive.

Where's the male speech-consciousness-raising?

In the end, though, I hate Valley-Girl-speak.

I'm very grateful indeed that women are urging women to be aware that these habits are not just a "style," and not anywhere near as appealing at work as they may be in a singles bar.

It's hard to be a man, wanting to encourage that improvement but unwilling to risk being seen as old, sexist, overly personal, hypercritical and/or condescending.

It used to be considered "a given" that one (not just actresses!) would work hard to eradicate flaws in one's speech that may feel comfortable but in fact impede professional communication. In a more formal time, Dan Rather went through hell to learn how to speak non-Texan, and no one hesitated to be insistent and judgmental about the need for that.

Avoiding weasel words and tentative tone is even more important.

Along with a zero knowledge of history, film history, records, telephones with rotary dials there is a decided bent toward speaking like ..".like, ugh, you know what I mean, don't ya"?
I don't know if any firms may ask people to visit a vocal coach, but I do not think it unreasonable. To rid oneself of bad inflection and perhaps slurred or garbled speech. I know of no better starter than watching an old movie with (hold the hanger) Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Olivia DeHaviland and Lauren Bacall all of whom, I believe had serious vocal training. I hate to say that with it's idealized version of life,old Hollywood should be the teacher here, but it was done for a reason: to be understood, to be commanding and take center stage. Vocal clarity, flexibility and control is increasingly important in a globalized business world, but it's a little thought of remedy in training a work force where mentioning someones actual voice as opposed to their inflection may raise problems. Being ever careful not to mention accents and regionalisms, there are ways to clarify speech, intonation and suddenly the owner of the voice will find they have a new tool (or weapon) that enables them to take complete command of any situation.

You are not alone in your distaste for "uptalk.." In her remarks at the recent Ms. JD conference, Vickie Pynchon, a dynamic speaker, gave similar advice.

I would add to Mohr's advice eliminating prefatory "I think" or "I believe" phrases. It's an obvious intro and also tends to somewhat weaken what follows. Granted, there may be times those qualifiers are appropriate, but be aware of overusing them.

Mohr is absolutely correct about slowing speech down. Also remember that deliberate pauses can add emphasis. Pausing after select words is part of what gives Bill Clinton's rhetoric such power.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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