I'm going to ask you to consider your reaction to a very common verbal habit that many other people have -- and that they get pilloried for, unfairly.
But people who react like this are wrong. At the very least, they're missing a tremendous opportunity because of their own insecurities.
The speaking habit I'm talking about here is what's known as "high rising terminal."
It has other names too, like "uptalk," "rising inflection," or "high rising intonation."
Practically, it's the phenomenon that results in people speaking declarative sentences with a rising pitch that is more commonly applied to asking a question. Sometimes, they wind up dividing declarative sentences into shorter phrases, each with its own rising pitch.
You'll understand what I mean with a quick example. A person who does not speak with a voice marked by a high rising intonation might offer the following suggestion:
"Looking at all the variables, and the uncertainty in the world right now, I think we should reach out to existing customers so we know where we stand. At the same time, we can figure out which future opportunities to double down on, and which to delay pursuing."
But for a person whose speaking style tends toward uptalk, the rising inflection sounds a bit more like this:
"Looking at all the variables? And the uncertainty in the world right now? I think we should reach out to existing customers. So we know where we stand? At the same time, we can figure out which future opportunities to double down on. And which to delay pursuing?"
Those are intentionally generic examples. You can replace the specific statements with things that would be more relevant to your business to make it more familiar.
Now, there are some studies that suggest women are more likely to speak with this kind of uptalk in their voices, although most of those analyses are at least a few years old. Other studies suggest it's more common in younger people.
My siblings and I used to call it "speaking Canadian," as it's a bit of a common inflection in Canada. (We were attuned to this since our mom was from Montreal.)
But as I've grown older and more experienced, and as I've gotten to know colleagues who have this tendency in their voices--but who are neither insecure, nor lacking in confidence, nor less competent than their peers--I've realized something important.
Rather than suggesting a lack of confidence, people who naturally speak in this style may be extraordinarily tuned in with their audiences.
Doing so--focusing on the effects your words actually have on people, and what they understand, as opposed to what you intend to say--are in turn signs of very high emotional intelligence.
So, let's return to the generic example above, in which the speaker acknowledges a dynamic situation and proposes a strategic course of action.
I'm not sure there's anything intrinsically wrong with the initial iteration, in which the declarative sentences are spoken declaratively. But when you think about why the high rising terminal speaker's sentences can sound like a string of questions, it makes a lot more sense.
In short, the question marks in that string of sentences don't signal insecurity. Instead, they signal: "Are you with me? Are my words reaching you? Do you understand the concepts I'm explaining?"
When the phrases "looking at all the variables," and "the uncertainty in the world right now" end with an uptick, the implied message is: "Do you understand that the course of action I'm about to suggest is informed by some big changes in the world?"
And when the speaker proposes reaching out to existing customers to find out where we stand (?), and figuring out which opportunities to delay (?), with a high rising intonation, I think they're applying one of the most insightful, effective methods of making tough decisions.
It's one I've written about that Jeff Bezos advocates: acknowledging that hard decisions will always have multiple, reasonable solutions, and so deciding is less about reaching consensus, and more about encouraging commitment.
Back to the example, would it be a good idea to focus on existing customers? Well, it's a hypothetical, so who knows?
But it's probably not a 100 percent right-or-wrong decision, right?
So the speaker's goal here is not just to advocate for an outcome, but to get buy-in from others. (It's also likely he or she doesn't have the practical power to insist simply: Here's what we're going to do.)
Instead, it's: "I know there's another argument, but I think we should double down on existing customers. Are you with me? Can we do this? Can I get your support?"
It's a lot to pack into an implied question mark. And I'm not saying it's intentional, as much as instinctive.
But it's also highly emotionally intelligent.
So what do you think?
Do you understand the argument?
And do you understand that if you dismiss people because they sometimes talk like this, maybe you're missing out on some smart contributions?
And maybe you're the one who needs to reassess?