Being more like you

Often when I sit through a round of practice talks by graduate students before a conference, one of the topics that often comes up is “Upspeak”…you know, when you end your statement with an increase in pitch, indicating a question? If you want to see an example, check out this comedy bit about upspeak using slam poetry as an example. I found this bit funny the first time I saw it. Now I find it slightly offensive. Read this post and then watch it again and see if you agree.

Grad students are often advised not to use upspeak because it implies a lack of confidence in what they’re saying. Make bold statements, rather than posing questions. Speak confidently. Similarly, I once had an REU student in the lab who included an apology as a part of many of her sentences. We used to tease her about this, partly for fun, but also partly because many of us thought it made her sound weak, even though she is incredibly bright and motivated and one of the best students we’d ever had work for us. However, by the end of the summer, I think we’d made her a neurotic mess because she was trying to be so conscious about correcting this habit.

However, that same REU student (now a grad student in a great program) recently brought to my attention that being apologetic (1) wasn’t such a bad thing and (2) was symptomatic of a perceived (and real) power dynamic in the world, in which one feels the need to lower themselves to their perceived position in a hierarchy. Well, that made me feel terrible because I think she is right about something that I actively try to combat (power hierarchies in academia). Now I realize we shouldn’t have been constantly telling her to “Act like us”, but spent more time appreciating the motivation for what she was doing. Having read more about upspeak [THIS one in Business Week, THIS one in the NYT, THIS one in The Atlantic, among many many others], I no longer think that it’s reflective of a lack of confidence, but more of a way of opening up a dialogue about an issue and kindling a connection with another person. It’s a mechanism by which one starts a dialogue, rather than a monologue. There are both benefits and detriments to upspeak, just as there are to projecting confidence, but we too often tell people to behave like us because that’s the way it’s always been done.

To some extent, the same thoughts are echoed inĀ this NYT piece, which partly suggests that if you’re too sensitive to criticism, you need to develop a thicker skin. In other words, quit being so sensitive and be more like me. It’s always easy to blame a lack of success on somebody else. After all, if I’m successful and you’re not, chances are that I must be doing something right that you are not. However, I think that overlooks the fact that success is often due to following the status quo, rather than bucking the system, which doesn’t mean the status quo is really the best solution to a problem.

We should spend some more time evaluating whether “I’ll be more like you” is also a viable strategy. For example, I find that upspeak is a really good strategy when I’m teaching. I think it makes me more relatable to the students, and it fosters more of a dialogue during lecture, in which students feel more comfortable asking questions. But more importantly, I think it points out that science is less about stating the rules, and more about exploring the exceptions to the rules. Science is an ongoing process. The best part about the scientific method isn’t stating the conclusion, but questioning why the results didn’t match the hypothesis, which results in new questions to be asked.

Let’s quit telling people to act more like us and start thinking more about why they’re acting as they are. First, we might learn something from them. But we might also learn how to interact with that person in a way that’s better for both us. Rather than telling people to develop a thicker skin about receiving criticism, maybe we can change the way we give criticism to others. Providing constructive criticism is more valuable than saying “this sucks” and having it roll off one’s back. This recent post about the Golden Rules of Reviewing comes to mind.

The other thing that is important to point out here is that this is an issue that disproportionately affects women, especially in science. The status quo in science was established by white men and any behavior contrary to that, even if it is a strategy broadly employed by half of the population, will be viewed as negative. Often when we’re telling students to avoid upspeak, stop apologizing, and develop a thicker skin, what we’re really saying is “Act like a man”. I don’t think the latter would go over well in a room full of academics, so the veiled statements should be viewed with similar contempt.


Even more importantly, as pointed out by the NYT article about criticism, women are often criticized for traits that appear to make them weak, while men are not criticized for the same traits. I’m a large white male, and I probably am perceived by others as confident as a default. (If you think that perception is accurate, see this old post about Imposter Syndrome). I can get away with using some upspeak and still be perceived as confident, whereas if somebody already had perceived me as lacking confidence, I wouldn’t get the same benefit of the doubt. This disconnect between perception and reality is at least partly responsible for fewer numbers of women in STEM fields than there should be.

We should reconsider this my-way-or-the-highway approach. Even though a lot of men see the need and value of and work very hard to incorporate women in science, our general approach is to tweak the system in such a way as to allow more participation by women. Rarely do we consider whether our whole approach is wrong. Maybe instead of scientific conferences structured as 15 minute talks in which somebody talks AT you, we should have hour long sessions with a dialogue on a topic, in which each person brings their own experiments and data to bear on the issue. Instead of telling female grad students to use less upspeak, maybe we should be telling the male grad students to use it more. If we’re really serious about increasing the number of women in science, it should be less about telling women “you need to do this”, and more about changing the system into one that’s less dominated by male values.


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