So, Like, Umm? ... Master Your Upspeak by Speaking Up

As an educator and a career counselor, I have the privilege of working with many inquisitive students — or at least they sound inquisitive because most of the sentences they utter seem to end in a question mark?

The speech pattern of turning each sentence into a question is known as upspeak, and many young people use it today. When this habit is combined with other word-fillers, including “um” and “like,” conversations with millennials can become rather painful.

Not that I expect students to speak as if they’re trained Shakespearean actors. Indeed, as a Generation Xer, I still catch myself slipping into verbal tics of “like,” “um,” and “ya know.” Sadly, these words also plague millennial speech patterns — a pattern that can only indicate that upspeak is here to stay for a while.

When did upspeak replace speaking up with confidence? And what can students do to reverse the trend, particularly as they start to apply to colleges and gear up for interviews?

It’s, Like, a Confidence Issue?

I’m not a linguistic expert, but I’ve always suspected that upspeak comes from a lack of confidence, as if the speaker is constantly asking in an undertone, “Do you understand?” or, “Am I making myself clear?” after every declarative sentence. Young people comprise the majority of offenders, but upspeak has become so widespread today that even radio and television personalities pepper their speech with unnecessary question marks.

It seems strange to be discussing a lack of confidence, since millennials are the generation who got trophies just for showing up. But many still pose lots of quasi-rhetorical questions at the ends of what would otherwise have been statements, ya know?

And these apparent questions make the askers (speakers?) sound as if they’re unsure about the points they are making.

More than Just the Facts

The use of filler words — ums, likes, and all the rest — also make speakers sound less confident in the points they are making, not to mention less clear.

“The first move is for the speaker to realize [she is] indeed using word fillers,” advised Anna D’Aloisio, an adjunct assistant professor in communication arts at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY. “I recommend the speaker record [her] speech/voice and listen back to [her] recording. In doing so, think carefully about how the filler is being used. Is it because you are unprepared and using the filler to recollect your thoughts, or are you nervous?”

In the former case, D’Aloisio recommends devoting more time to preparing in the future. If it’s a question of nerves, though, she suggests that the speaker “need[s] to immediately stop talking and pause. It may seem awkward at first, but with practice, you'll train yourself to stop using fillers.”

Silence Is (Not) Golden

Again, I don’t expect high school students to be orators on par with a Greek statesman like Pericles. In fact, nervousness at this age will often be written off as charming — good news for those who’ve been offered an interview at their top-choice colleges. But the charm will quickly wear off when students resort to lazy speech patterns in an effort to fill the silence.

Clearly, millennials were not raised in an era when the adage “silence is golden” reigned — think of the perpetual sight of earbuds dangling from their necks. So it’s understandable that quiet pauses during an interview would quickly become awkward for a young person. And this is where the verbal tics come into play — as long as the student is filling the air with something, all is well. Right?

Wrong, according to Jared Miracle, Ph.D., of Ocean University in China, an advisor to international students who are hoping to attend college in the U.S. He’s got some good advice to prep for the interview, even one conducted online:

Interviewees tend to respond too quickly to questions. Before setting off on your answer, take two normal breaths and consider your words. This will help to slow down nervous speech and limit those annoying "um" sounds.

Dr. Miracle also reminds us of some parental advice that many ignore: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. “The same goes for interviews,” he says. “If you don't have a well-thought-out response, keep your lips together to avoid unsmooth speech. The interviewer knows that you're nervous, so it's perfectly fine to take a moment and think.”

A pause in conversation might seem endless to the person who is grasping for the next word, but it’s much better to hear silence than a refrain of awkward “ums.” In fact, during that pause, you even have the chance to build a better connection with your listener by making eye contact, taking a breath, and resuming your answer thoughtfully.

Dr. Miracle suggests, “Try noting the color of the interviewer's eyes. We often don't take the time to look directly at someone's eyes. Doing so forces your mind to slow down and think about what you're saying.”

If you're beginning the application process, check out the free and customizable college search tool on Noodle. You can also find further admissions advice from Barbara Bellesi and other Noodle Experts.