Speak Up—But Don’t “Tic” Off Your Audience

Sometimes I feel like a one-woman vigilante on a mission to rid the world—or at the very least the workplace—of vocal tics.

No doubt you’ve heard a few of these within your office walls.

Let’s start with “Upward Inflection,” originated and perfected by California Valley girls in the 70’s who managed to take a declarative statement and turn it into a question: “Hi? I’m Jasmine? I’m your waitress? The special is really good?”

Is she really Jasmine? Can I trust her opinion about the special if she’s stating it as a question? No, I can’t!

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Jasmines and their Tweener pals who are upward inflecting. Seasoned professionals (men and women) are falling prey to this linguistic affliction. In fact, a senior marketing executive from Google ended every sentence (I am not exaggerating) of his NPR interview by upward inflecting, making him sound tentative and immature—the exact opposite of the powerful image he needed to convey.

And then there’s “like”. This was my personal favorite in high school.  I used it as filler before almost every word and I know it was, like, just as annoying then, as it is, like, now!

The “vocal fry” is a relative newcomer to the tic list. Made famous by Kim Kardashian (and numerous other pop stars and entertainers), vocal fry emanates from the back of the throat and sounds like the speaker is gargling gravel. “Frying” usually happens at the very end of a sentence and is often accompanied by one or more facial gestures—a rolling of the eyes or a slack jaw with a WTF attitude—leaving not an iota of doubt that the speaker is, like, to-tal-ly bored.

But the most recent vocal tic gaining followers in corporate cubicles is the word “…right?” intoned at the end of a statement. I first experienced this six months ago when, during a contract negotiation, my client used it to end every sentence.

“So, you’ll do additional video-taped sessions, right?  Because that’s the only way we can really ensure that this will work, right? And everything you create for this course will be ours, right? And you’ll do it for $______, right?”

Feeling (rightly so) like I was being steamrolled, I interrupted her and said, “I need to stop and go back several minutes in the conversation because I’m feeling that there were a lot of assumptions made that I’m not in agreement with and which need to be discussed.” I was tempted but resisted the inclination to add “right?” to my declaration.

Since then, I’ve checked around and found that this particular tic occurs most frequently in industries with a disproportionate share of speed talkers and alpha personalities (no surprise), in large metropolitan cities. These “right on” folks obviously need to check their assumptions and their freneticism at the door, right?

The thing about these vocal tics is that we’re not aware we’re doing them until someone tells us. And of course, the more endemic they become, the harder it is for us to stop because we’re hearing them all around us. Nevertheless, vocal tics almost always give an impression that we are less intelligent, confident and experienced than we really are, so they are worth trying to correct and as soon as possible.  Try recording your own voice in conversation (you can use your smartphone) and listening as objectively as you can to hear if you have any of these—or perhaps other—vocal tics. Once you know what you’re dealing with you can prompt yourself to stop.  Then finally, I can, like, stop my one-woman crusade, right?