The Hard Facts: Do Your Friends Talk the Talk?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“‘If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,’ said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. ‘The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.’” (“They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistiv Currrrve” ; NYTimes.com 2/28/2012)

I’m fascinated by this article about how girls, teens and 20-somethings are largely responsible for starting language and vocal trends. We think of Valley Girl speak, or Mean Girls’ “That’s so fetch,” or Happy Endings‘ “Ah-mah-zing,” as silly and immature, but linguists are saying otherwise.

Says one professor to the Times: “A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute. But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

The trends in question are “uptalk,” which is when people end a sentence as a question (“OMG, it is sooo cold out?”) and “vocal fry,” which this article explains as “a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence.” (There’s an official example here, though Britney Spears, Ke$ha and Maya Rudolph as Maya Angelou are all said to be more recognizable examples.)

It’s interesting that the quote at the top of this article says that girls employ these vocal ticks as relationship building tools. I wish they’d expanded on that. I’m wondering if it works as another cue that one is “with it,” similar to fashion. We dress alike, we speak alike, therefore we should be friends? Or are these linguistic features actually used to attract others and denote power ?

It seems that researchers don’t quite know the “why” of it all just yet. According to the article, “some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous. Another theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.” And even these reasons speak more to why and how women start the fad, not how the fad is used to build relationships.

Still it’s worth paying attention to. As kids, you and your BFF might have had a secret language or a few inside joke words that only you could decipher. Perhaps these vocal features are the same. I’ve definitely had the experience of meeting two best friends separately, and their speech patterns being eerily similar.

Do you and your BFFs have the same vocal ticks?

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “The Hard Facts: Do Your Friends Talk the Talk?

  1. I think talking is something you pick up on depending on who you hang out. So, yes. Friends talk similarly. If you move to the south, you’ll pick up a southern accent. If you immerse yourself in a foreign language, you pick it up easier. It’s so true.
    And I have definitely picked up things from friends (and family) that I probably wouldn’t otherwise say. One of my best friends would exclaim/mutter/stammer “Balls!” instead of swearing. I believe it was something she picked up at camp, but I say it all the time now.
    Also, during my college years, my mother made a comment that I swore a lot more.
    I think it’s just a product of the environment that you put yourself in.

  2. Anonymous

    This is so funny because I notice more with my husband: if he is talking on the phone with his best friend from high school or best friend from college, i can always tell. He speaks in different ways with both of them…speech patterns, accent, phrases, chandler bingish with one of his friends..all different. I always thought it was strange, but maybe it’s a “we are connecting, i am right with you’ kind of thing. Now i will pay attention to see if i do that.

    • Ana

      This totally reminded me of Lily on HIMYM when she hung out with her high school friend—she would adopt this really weird “ghetto” talk…I don’t think most people are THAT obvious, but I definitely talk a bit differently with different groups of friends, and find myself emulating certain catch-phrases or abbreviations, etc… For example, with my young-ish group of work friends I might mention that something is “Totes amaze-balls!”, but I would NEVER say that in front of my more mature colleagues; with my high school/college friends from down south, its “ya’ll” this and “i’m fixin’ to” that. Its not even conscious, my brain just falls into a different pattern of speech.

  3. As part of my student teaching, I had to tape myself teaching a lesson. I had never realize I said, “Okaaaaaaaay” all the time. For example, we finished an example on the board and I was going on to the next part of the lesson and I said, “Okaaaay, everyone needs to get out a fresh sheet of paper.”
    It was so bad that I was sitting watching the lesson and cringing. Every time I knew there was a transition coming up, I would tense up and wait for that annoying word to come out of my mouth. Since then I’ve been much more aware of my “filler words” both in my professional and social life. I think I just got used to filling the space with “like”s or “you know”s and so I replaced it with “okay”. Now that I’m not in the college environment I find that it’s easier but I know that I still pick up vocal ticks from whomever I’m around.

  4. I agree with Elise about how you pick up things depending on your environment. I also think this article and subject matter of women and their “uptalking” speaks to a larger issue about how social media has made us all unable or less able to socialize over the phone and in person. So, when we do get together with girlfriends, we don’t feel as comfortable being ourselves and therefore feel the need to talk in a funny or cuter way to make it easier to interact.

  5. Janelle

    Absolutely! Depending on who I hang out with, I totally have a different tone/voice pattern. It depends on the person(s). For a long time I thought it was a flaw and thought myself fake. I don’t think that anymore. I realize I’m more comfortable and think my friends are too, when we speak the same language, if you will.

    Some friends I won’t swear in front of, others I gossip with, others are workout partners so I’m super motivated. Each situation evokes an emotion and my voice reacts to it.

  6. Yes. Absolutely yes. I agree with Janelle above. During my own research (read: life of serial moving), I’ve watched myself morph the way I speak depending on who I’m with or where I am. I’ve lived in extreme northern New England, Atlanta, Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and New Jersey.

    (A unique aside: each place I move, people tell me I have an “accent”. Southerners think I sound like a yankee. Northerners (esp NJ-ites) think I sound southern.)

    Another serial-mover friend of mine and I have discussed this phenomenon of changing your vocals (speech, patterns, accent, and even mannerisms) when you’re with different groups. We both agree that part of “moving survival” is being a chameleon and blending with the local color. I’ve moved so much that this chameleonish behavior is second nature. But, this trend brings up different questions, like, “Am I changing who I am just to fit in?” (Probably.) And, “Which ‘voice’ is really mine?” (Probably all of them.)

    I think (like you and your commenters) that this is a huge part of social interaction.

    Great food for thought!

  7. Last night I went to an event that focused on making your voice sound more professional, so we ended up talking about things like vocal fry and uptalk–so this post and the NYT article are making me feel very connected to the universe right now! :-) I’m on the right track!

    My speech/accent seems to be semi-permeable. I grew up in the South but my parents are Ghanaian (West African) and speak the Queen’s English. So saying “ain’t” or “fixin’ to” was out of the question in my house

    I’ve lived in Chicago for almost 15 years and my O’s are rounder, but that’s about it. When I came here for college, no one could place where I was from, but the first guess was California (I do sound like a sad, stoner Valley Girl at times).

    I will say that two of my co-workers have those word filler/pauses “um” combined with an uptalk that I may have picked up, and I feel like my pitch tends to go up higher when I talk to them.

    But I do talk differently when I talk to different people, but not by much.

    Thanks for your post, and your blog, and your book, Rachel!

  8. Never heard the term Vocal Fry but that is exactly whar my 16 year old son does! My husband and I called it Teenager Accent!

  9. Thank you for sharing. Needed to read this..

  10. This is SO interesting! After having moved around to a few different countries, and especially after coming to a university in the UK where 1/3 of the students are from abroad, this totally resonates with me. I actually found that because I was speaking 75% of the time to people whose first language is not English, I spoke as clearly and “accent-less” as I could make my northwest American voice. It’s interesting to look back on it and pick up on the correlation between me making myself the most understandable to the most people, and at the same time losing those relationship-building linguistic tidbits.

    When at home in the States, I consciously reroute myself from using British terms for words (e.g. “loo”, “ragin’”) – but when I pronounce a word used in both cultures that might have a different pronunciation, I use the British pronunciation without thinking (e.g. “adults”)!

    It is definitely easier to connect one-to-one with my Scottish friends, because each of their accents holds the conversation in a different ‘rhythm’. I can now conform to their rhythms, but it’s a mental overload for me when out with 3+ other people (and conforming to that rhythm seems to correlate to the bonding that occurs – but whether that’s related also to my own comfort/confidence or just preference to be in smaller groups of friends, I don’t know!).

  11. I lived quite a few years in Hazelton, BC. Canada. The area consisted of 7 different First Nations Reservations.
    What is interesting about this is the use or words to denote special words, phrases, or made up sounds.
    Out of these 7 reservations, from the sounds they make in a certain way, or reason, you can tell which reservation they are from.
    Such as Glen Vowell reservation will say “hiiiy jaa…you serious?” or Kispiox reservation would say “Hiiy.. Superman” or “Hiiy..Stupid” when you do something.
    I found it very weird when I first moved there, but became used to it.

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