You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

This is a story about two women in science.

I finished fieldwork on Monday and drove down the next day to San Francisco to hear my friend Laurie’s practice talk for an upcoming meeting. We first went out to dinner at a Korean restaurant, where we were seated at a tiny table for two. To our left was another pair of diners, a man and a woman, close enough that we could have all linked arms and sung Kumbaya if we’d wanted.

Except while summarizing my fieldwork to Laurie, I noticed the man (next to me) twitching his head in my direction and gesturing to his companion. Was he indicating something about me? Then I heard him say: “Upspeak. She’s using upspeak. Do you know what that is?” The woman replied no. “It’s where people’s voices go up when they talk. She’s doing it. I can’t stand it.”

Reflexively I began checking my speech. First, his definition of upspeak was wrong. While I was certainly altering my pitch, I was not turning every sentence into a question. (Hang on, why did I instantly try to correct myself?) Second, it became impossible to continue the conversation. It was like talking on a cell phone that echoes — mid-sentence, I’d see the head jerk and lose my train of thought.

Laurie tried to tell me about her own latest work, using tools to scan the genome for transcription factor binding motifs. Ignoring the fact that we were talking shop, the man started gesturing toward her with his chopsticks. “Women do it more than men,” he informed his companion. “Girls more than guys.”

Laurie soldiered on, asking me an actual question ending in an actual question mark. When he waved in dismissal at her upward inflection, the irritation boiled over. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry, it’s really annoying to have you commenting on our conversation.”

I stared into the blue eyes and frozen smile of a middle-aged man; I registered wispy light hair and a sport jacket. Who was this person who thought it was okay to be scrutinizing our speech?

We were all flustered. I wanted to say more, but I knew I would trip over my words. Laurie and I recall his reply, “Well, it’s more annoying to have to hear it. And I didn’t realize you could hear us,” followed by the woman’s apology. (Hang on, why was she the one to say sorry?) Everyone returned to their respective conversations, but of course the tension remained.

He quickly made himself disagreeable in other ways, undermining his companion with statements like “You never know how to make a long story short, do you?” Also, he said “no” when requested to eat his food.

The awkwardness flared again when we made room for them to leave. The man turned before reaching the door, looked at us, and said, “I hope you have a nice night.” I gave him the benefit of the doubt, managing a tight smile and thank you before watching him exit our lives.

We spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak. Oh, wait, no, we worked for two hours on Laurie’s talk, which contains two years of impressive and meticulous findings on recombination rate variation in great apes.

Then we spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak.


The offenders in question? Clearly we need some more recent photos?


Some thoughts:

(a) I re-read the recent commentaries on vocal fry, the latest women’s speech pattern to throw everyone up in arms. Quotes:

  • “For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences…So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.” (Amanda Hess, Slate, 7 January 2013)
  • “Judgments about speech are judgments about the speakers themselves…Inherently there is of course nothing unsophisticated about vocal fry, up-talk, or using ‘like.’ All this is to say that normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes.” (Gabriel Arana, Atlantic, 10 January 2013)

This isn’t to say I don’t notice those tics myself. After all, my peers and I grew up with those same social attitudes. But something about that man’s fixation was especially grating. He interrupted a serious work discussion to comment on our voices and not our words. I only hope those judgments weren’t shoved directly into a mental bin of All Women Are. Given his behavior, I’m not optimistic. But I can still hope.

(b) Corollary 1: Even if we had been talking about clothes/hair/dating, we still shouldn’t have felt obliged to defend our intelligence or ourselves. Corollary 2: Would he have done the same thing if one or both of us had been male? If there had been a man with us? (“Further experiments manipulating sex ratio will test whether the subject’s reactions are always this awful.”)

(c) It felt so good to speak up, even if I wasn’t totally composed. Credit to Women in Science and Engineering, “Lean In,” biology seminars, and my mom (who once stopped in the middle of a violin recital to tell the audience to shut up). I wish it hadn’t felt revolutionary to be assertive to a stranger, and I wish I’d stayed articulate under pressure. But this just means next time will feel a little less boat-rocking, and I’ll keep my presence of mind a little longer, until it will no longer be blogworthy to ask for respect. I want to try again.

(d) So, to the man at dinner, wherever you are: I hope you understand our perspective and why your behavior was upsetting. My friend and I were engaged in normal adult conversation and deserve to be treated like normal adult diners. Please refrain from judging us, and judging us incorrectly. I hope we made an impact on you as much as you did on us.

Also, we are very sorry about your penis.

Hit it, Feminist Taylor Swift.

61 responses to “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. This blog post is just perfect.

  2. Thanks, Kate! Hope you catch Laurie’s talk at Evolution.

  3. rejectreality101

    Loved this!

  4. Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading it.

  5. Perfect. Absolutely perfect!

  6. Congratulations on not letting one jerk throw off your compassion. I really enjoyed reading your writing- your “voice” is so clear. Looking forward to seeing you at sometime. 🙂

    • You will love it. Let me know if you want to meet up for coffee and be shown around a little bit. Ditto if you want to get some recommendations for stuff to do/eat/etc. Bloggers take care of each other, yo. :P~

      • This sounds great! The trip’s for a wedding and I’m only in town the Sunday after that. But let me email you if I have down time that day. It would be awesome to meet a fellow blogger! And maybe add to the impressions of the city I got from Portlandia 🙂

  7. Very interesting post. In my experience in education I have found that women’s voices get high pitched as they get louder as they are trying to be heard. It seems to click something in the male’s brains in a bad way. I found teenage boys in particular showed less respect for the woman trying to talk but would show more respect if a man raised his voice (That is getting louder but not higher in pitch). Several of these female teachers were told to practice raising their voices but maintaining a lower pitch. In the 16th century I guess these women would have been labelled “Shrewish”. You mentioned that only the guy was complaining and not the woman. It would be interesting to find out why this has an adverse effect on the male brain.

  8. The man was rude. As I near 60, I find it increasingly annoying to work with 20-something (and 30-something) colleagues, especially women, whose vocal patterns sound to me like 13-year-old girls talking about their boyfriends. And yes, I am talking about PhD scientists and other professionals. This is certainly as much my problem as it is theirs, but I am not alone in these perceptions. It is not only actors on the stage who work diligently to adjust their speech patterns professionally, often by lowering the pitch. Executives (and politicians) have done it for years because it matters. Saying it shouldn’t and whipping out your PhD as proof seems narcissistic, at best.

    • Thanks for weighing in. I don’t disagree that certain vocal patterns can undermine one’s authority and that there’s general consensus what those patterns are. I’m also not using an advanced degree as a free pass. Learning how to control one’s image is one of the most important professional skills for anyone. But for a person who wants to give advice (and thus exert control on someone else), I think the calculation to make is (a) how much the vocal tic gets in the way of what the person is saying and (b) how boundary-violating it is to point out a distraction. As a TA, I’ve had to curb the use of “like” in undergrads, because it’s my place to help them become successful students/citizens, these are the standards of success to which we adhere, and I want them to think about the impressions they convey. As a colleague, if invited I will identify vocal patterns that need to be managed. Maybe the dynamics of your relationship are such that you could point them out as well. But above all it’s key to recognize the reason for the annoyance is culturally inscribed and may have nothing to do with the quality of the person’s thoughts.

  9. ceruleanstarshine

    Hurray for speaking up! I have found that if you politely confront most people (especially in the situation you and your friend were in) they are usually so shocked they stop whatever it is they were doing. You don’t always get an apology, but you generally get them to stop bad mouthing you.


  10. themodernidiot

    Next time, try this: “Dude. Shut up.” 🙂

  11. The guy was a jerk, clearly. That judgment is the same type as he made of your “annoying” speech pattern, also clearly. I think you did as well as you could, considering that such judgments should be kept to oneself, especially where strangers are involved. He violated that principle, so it was right for you to respond.

  12. I think what it boils down to is that the guy was just an asshole!

  13. That’s awesome that you actually said something. I always bite my tongue and regret it later when someone’s being a jackass like that.

  14. If that guy’s going to crap himself every time a woman someplace has the temerity to exist without consulting him first, he’s going to spend a lot of time changing his drawers.

    Just rip into them next time. Being endlessly explaining and maternally educational toward these assholes doesn’t accomplish anything. Just rip him a new hole and move on.

  15. It’s never polite to comment on someone else negatively in their hearing, no matter how annoying their mannerism. He was clearly wrong and should have gotten up to go eat somewhere quieter if he was disturbed. Maybe he was trying to embarrass the woman he was with for some reason. Maybe he was intimidated by two women talking about things he couldn’t even understand, and so he picked on something trivial because he didn’t like how you made him feel about himself. And some people just think that everything they say is a pearl of wisdom from the mouths of the gods. My sympathies to you, I know how hard it is to shake these things off.

  16. thenakedtruth2

    you said -He interrupted a serious work discussion to comment on our voices and not our words. We were judged for something unrelated to the content of our character, then treated to an unsavory glimpse of his.—

    Yes, it was wrong for him to interrupt you at all. Your words were none of his business, and your inflection was equally none of his business.

    But try to separate his ignorance from the valid point he makes. There has been an increasing number of women who speak on the ‘upshift.’ It is big time annoying for a ton of reasons. I became aware of this many years ago when a professional women did an interview via radio, so I was more acute with my ears.

    I instantly did not want to listen to her for THAT reason, sorry to say, just some naked truth here. Her manner turned off my desire to listen, valid or not. I’ll not usurp your post here further, just consider this further.

    All the best.

    • themodernidiot

      Show me your data.

      • thenakedtruth2


        The statement stands on its own. For somebody not to like rainbows, it appears you desire to be argumentative, in which I will not engage.

        I would be more curious what the writer of the blog thinks.

      • themodernidiot

        I just wanted stats on the increase you logged of women up-speaking.

      • thenakedtruth2

        I said: ‘There has been an increasing number of women who speak on the ‘upshift.’

        My ‘data’ is my powers of simple observation. It is pervasive. It is everywhere, everyday, please listen carefully as one needs not proof to cite the obvious.

      • themodernidiot

        Yes, you stated it was your observation. This observation of what appears to be a sample group is the evidence you are using to make your claim that there is an increase in female upshift. I am not arguing with you. I have no reason to question your facts. So, I’d like to know the details of your experiment. I think it might be useful to our entire discussion here. How many women did you observe out of a population of how many? What percentage of the women you observed engaged in upshift? What percentage of the total population does that constitute? Were there any common denominators to those who upshifted? What were the results of the control group, for I assume you had a control group? What trending data did you compare your findings to? Stating you observed a trend implies you have previous study data to which you compared your findings. Forgive me, but I can only assume you have carefully constructed your study to eliminate any false findings from mal-constructed correlations, or science forbid, pure assumption. I mean, it’s silly to think you would offer such a definitive statement without data to back it up. And I’m sure you’d agree that we shouldn’t blindly accept what one person considers the obvious if we were not there to also observe it. Since none of us were with you when you did your study, we can only analyse your findings as you have compiled them. So, I was hoping to take a look at your lab notes. I think it is an interesting hypothesis, and am pretty excited that you’ve proven it. This is good empirical data I can use in language discussions I’m having in other spaces. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, I understand.

      • themodernidiot

        And if you could analyse my responses for upshifting, it would be appreciated. Granted it is text, but it should be blatantly obvious to someone with your super-perceptive skills. Certainly you can discern upshift via word choice and punctuation. If it’s too difficult, just read it out loud to yourself.

      • thenakedtruth2


        My ‘observations’ are relevant to the discussion. There is no exaggerated flattery here as to these alleged ‘super skills,’ just a good ear. You have these same skill sets: common sense and reasoning.

        What ‘data’ do you require to prove there is an upshift in texting, in all ages???

        What data do you require that proves we (you and I incl) spend alot of time via computer??
        I could go on. All the best

      • themodernidiot

        Yes, all the best

  17. That guy identified himself to you as a snob. I find that crazy guys use different ways to let women know they are present and so do snob guys. I hope you see him again sometime so you can have the upper hand. Be sure to make a statement with an up ending. And give your head a little tilt to add to the effect ! Add some insane laughter and floor the a==hole ! 😉

  18. He sounds like a real speech snob. I had a teacher in freshman speech who was very critical of my voice. I’m still not sure why the small characteristics of my speech that weren’t even mentioned in the text or lectures upset her so much. Perhaps if I’d majored in speech, I could understand her concern. However, some people have more important things to do in life than worry that their natural speech patterns might annoy someone. You and your friend certainly do.

  19. I absolutely loved this. I have always had a tendency to start talking more loudly whenever I’m especially excited or passionate about stuff, and I always get shushed for it. It’s always made me feel stupid, and gauche, and I hate it. It’s nice to actually hear someone point out that speaking tics have nothing to do with your character.

  20. The nerve!! 😐 Always speak up, even if your voice shakes.

  21. The guy was definitely a jackass, but at least his dining companion seemed to be getting fed up with him too by the way your article reads.

    Beyond that, I’d also have a strong word with the restaurant and suggest they rearrange their seating to give more space between tables to avoid the sort of invasion of privacy that you experienced.

  22. Lol, lol! Is it me? Or are people these days feeling more at ease with verbally correcting folks they do NOT even know?! Wild, I tell you, just wild..And thats my censored version of what I’d call those type of folks..Kudos for how you handled it! And double kudos for blogging it out & sharing it with us. 2 thumbs UP

  23. I would have done the exact same thing. I hate people being judgmental. I too confronted a stranger some weeks back about a different matter but I went unheard. (Check out my latest post, i wrote about it at
    I hope this man learns his lesson right.

  24. Kriti Khandelwal

    The man obviously didn’t realize he was being a ranter himself. Great article!

  25. This is so well said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Thanks for sharing.

  26. Inconceivable (another nod to “The Princess Bride”)!

  27. Grad school, circa 1995–Deborah Tannen’s book, “Talking from Nine to Five” was on our read list. Opened my eyes to the whole upspeak thing. Most useful piece of advice I could have gotten in my career at the time. Also taught me to lower my pitch. But, I can’t believe how rude your fellow diner was. Sounds like being him is punishment enough:) He sounds a bit miserable.

    • I’ll have to check out that book. Women in Science and Engineering actually had a whole series on public presentation last year. We wanted to invite Deborah Tannen as a speaker, but since she’s so well known, her fees were way too high for us. I agree pitch influences people’s perceptions of you (due to standard “professional” expectations) and that it’s smart to learn how to manage it. But yes, the problem was more with boundaries and unsolicited advice. I don’t want to have experienced whatever drove him to become that way.

  28. He was a dick.

    But I agree that some women really need to listen to themselves on tape or video to hear how breathy and girlish and silly they sound, no matter how smart or incisive their thoughts. We may not like it, but we all judge one another within seconds of hearing and seeing one another, and if a woman is talking to me in some goofy, unassertive way — which I hear, sadly, more often than I’d like — she loses points in my eyes for not even knowing she’s creating a poor professional impression.

    Sorry that two such cool women socially discussing their work were so intrusively dissed. Your work sounds really interesting.

  29. The guy is a jerk. He not only was a jerk to you he was a jerk to his companion. And that’s hysterical: he could hear YOU speak plainly enough but somehow you couldn’t hear HIM? Okay…

  30. This is amazing. I feel bad for the woman he was with, I can only imagine the night she had. So great to see that you said something, I feel like so often in those situations the man becomes the authoritarian on everything. You and your friends were obviously too smart to let that happen. Great post!

  31. Um, I think I met that man at Home Depot a while back.

  32. I cannot believe that this happened! It’s so sad. Kudos to you for standing up for yourself, however. I hope that this kind of sexism becomes less pervasive because of people speaking out. Great post! And, thank you for representing women in the sciences so well.

  33. Interesting post.

  34. I hope he comes across this blog some day, whadda jerk! He probably lacked the education to comprehend the science talk, and being threatened, he had to devalue you two in other ways. I love smart women, rock on!

  35. I thought you would get a kick out of my blog entry today. The tie-in is not immediately obvious, but I would love to be a fly on the wall when you find it. 🙂

  36. good for him that you said something .. gosh, he might be so shocked that a woman was able to confront him.. 🙂

  37. Frankly, I simply stop speaking. I refuse if I’m not being listened to. To hell with the raising of voice and higher pitch. And then, I get, “why are you so quiet?” Are you kidding me? Helllllllll no! Not going there … and yea … I’m sorry about their penis” too!

    Great … so identifiable article!

  38. Well done for speaking up. I hope his date dumped him. That dude sounds miserably insecure.

  39. How rude. Maybe he was showing off his knowledge, albeit in an inappropriate manner. I think you detected his pattern of condescending speech, even to the person he was with. Maybe he has some sort of personality disorder (not autism).

    Wonder how he would have reacted to my son, who being autistic, had to be made aware by his speech therapists and other therapists about his sing-song way of speaking. His unusual speech rhythms and tones made it difficult for some people to understand him. This guy might have made comments, but he would have no idea where that speech pattern was coming from. But my son would have been oblivious to it, but I would have heard it.

  40. Upspeak sounds like an Orwellian concept for boasting about the value or capability of something.
    I applaud you for speaking up for something offensive, people so often let these things go. I am a firm believer in speaking up for things in a polite manner of course. It sounds like you handled the situation very well.

  41. LOL..What?! AAHHH..This is my take. More than likely this degenerate of the male species felt emasculated by two highly intelligent women who were speaking about a subject he had no idea about. Because his intelligence level scores w/ sea monkey’s, he felt compelled to bring you down a peg by fixating on anything he could focus on to bring you below his “level” and make him feel superior. Although I am sooo proud of you for coming out of your comfort zone and calling the bitch out I wish I was at that table. I would have loved to receive a citation for asking him what he felt about this upspeak, punching him in the throat, and chastizing his female companion for keeping company with such an ignorant jerk and her socialization with him only makes gives his transgressions against the opposite sex merit.

  42. You’re pretty fantastic. Enjoyed this very much!

  43. Pingback: Language in the Media: Language Snobbery | Against the Grain

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