The Rise and Fall of ‘ZuckTalk’

In the spoken language there are these things that just show up over time and then it seems like they are everywhere and that’s why we call them trends, right? In a world where there is more recorded language than ever and, um, more access to all of that language, these changes can happen very quickly, but they can also be harder to isolate, right? So there’s a whole field about it, and it’s actually called linguistics, and it’s a really good tool for understanding the world around us.

To the right?

Maybe you know someone who talks like that. It is a disorienting style of speaking that combines confident self-confidence with nervous filler words and fear of pauses. You might hear that voice talking about meme stocks on a date.

You may hear a counter-intuitive regulation proposal on TV or on a podcast explaining which complicated things are actually easy and which are actually complicated. Perhaps it is an executive on a phone call, interview, or on stage delivering a Jobsian message in a Gates tone.

You might hear from Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook. The style does not originate from him, nor is he responsible for its dissemination. However, he can be the most visible and successful practitioner.

During his frequent public appearances, Mr. Zuckerberg can be heard taking a position on all sorts of topics in this way: the future of technology (“in the sense of augmented reality, right, so there is virtual reality …”); the beginnings of his social network (“there was no feed, right?”); human progress (“right, so I mean, life expectancy has increased from about 50 to about 75”); Facebook’s mission (“You know, it is important to me to give people the opportunity to share content, to give each person a voice so that we can make the world more open and connected. Right?”); “The history of science” (“most major scientific breakthroughs are driven by new tools, right, new perspectives, right?”).

This is the voice of someone – in this case, and often a man – who is as comfortable as not at all about virtually any subject. (This isn’t the cautious, measured voice of Sheryl Sandberg, the cheerfully rumbling awkwardness of Elon Musk.) It was by default one of the defining communication styles of its time. To the right?

ZuckTalk is a style of unpolished language shown in contexts where Polish is common. It’s a linguistic hooded sweatshirt in a metaphorical boardroom. It is more than a collection of tics, but its tics are critical to understanding it.

One: So. Another: Right? In its ultimate Zuckerberg form, combined as a programmatic if-then connection: Right? So.

For years, linguistic observers have noted the apparent increase in the “so” associated with the popularization of certain topics and ways of speaking. In 2010, Anand Giridharadas announced the arrival of a new breed of humble word in the New York Times.

“’So’ can be the new ‘well’, ‘uh’, ‘oh’ and ‘how’. It is no longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, but has jumped to the beginning, ”he wrote, crediting journalist Michael Lewis for documenting its use among Microsoft programmers more than a decade ago.

In 2015, Geoff Nunberg, the program’s longtime linguist, explained in a story for “Fresh Air” on NPR this use of “so” as a keyword used by “people who can’t answer a question without asking it first to bring up to date “. in the backstory, ”he said. Hence its name for it: background story “so”.

Syelle Graves, linguist and assistant director of the Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, wrote her dissertation on the rise and use of that particular “so”. She analyzed a sample of spontaneous, unwritten American speech from 1990 to 2011 and concluded that this use of “so” had actually increased significantly, often as a substitute for “good”.

When examining online posts, she also found that people not only noticed the spread, but were often irritated. “One of the most surprising results was that some public posters connected the ‘so’ backstory with women, but just as many with men,” wrote Dr. Graves in an email.

Later, Dr. Graves conducted a survey in which subjects responded to records from men and women who gave identical answers to questions, with “so” and “good” added at the beginning. “In short, the woman who answered ‘so’ was rated as less authoritative, trendier and more like a ‘valley girl’ than the exact same woman who answered ‘good’,” she said.

“The man who answered ‘so’ backstory questions was less personable, condescending, and more like a ‘tech brother’ than the exact same shot of the same man answering ‘good’,” she said.

Speakers loosely associated with one of California’s apparently linguistically green valleys – Silicon in the north, San Fernando in the south – were generally perceived as “among other things less intelligent, less technically competent and less mature.”

Well into the “so” era, another linguistic trend received much more attention: Vocal Fry.

The term describes a way of speaking – also known as the “creaky voice” – which has a number of gender-specific connotations. Studies have shown that women with vowel brood are often judged to be less competent, less intelligent, and less qualified than those without.

In popular culture, Vocal Fry became a joke, then his defense became a minor matter; In countless YouTube comment sections, it has been a way for sexist people to briefly pose as concerned linguists to complain again about the way women talk.

Male-coded speaking styles are a little less explored. That is not to say that they will go completely unnoticed. Users of Quora, a kind of professional Yahoo! Answers that are popular and masculine distorted among employees in tech and tech-related industries have repeatedly returned to the same question: “When and why did everyone start ending sentences with ‘correct’?”

This is called a question mark “correct”, similar to a British “innit”, a Canadian “eh” or a French “n’est-ce pas”. (See also: “Right?” “Isn’t it?” “No?” “OK?”

Quora users say hearing that “right” is endemic to their worlds. “I suspect that this speaking technique may have evolved through the proliferation of podcasts, TED talks, and NPR-style radio programs,” wrote one user. “Because they are not interested in what you have to say, they just want you to confirm what they are saying.”

“It could be linked to narcissism or a borderline personality disorder,” wrote another user. “Seems to be very common among the intelligentsia of Silicon Valley,” said a third.

Micah Siegel, venture capitalist and former Stanford professor, joined a Quora thread with an unusually specific theory. “In my opinion, this is a classic language virus,” he wrote. “I think it started in the particle physics community in the early 1980s, expanded to the solid state physics community in the mid 1980s, and then to the neuroscientific community in the late 1980s. It seems like it has only become mainstream in the last few years. I’m not sure what caused this last jump. “

Mr. Siegel isn’t the only one watching the spread of “right?”. among scientists of the natural sciences; A 2004 study by linguist Erik Schleef found that related forms of “OK” and “right” are used much more frequently in science lectures than in humanities lectures, speculating that they “need to review understanding more often than humanities lecturers “.

A plausible answer to Mr. Siegel’s question about what was “right” about entering the “mainstream” language is that people with an academic background like his – familiar with a culture of conversation and presentation that relate to surroundings Feel most comfortable with specialized shared expertise – figures are now public. They work on companies and products that became extremely powerful pretty quickly even outside of the worlds they were built in.

As credible as the linguistic lab-leak theory is found, “correct” and its many variants have achieved widespread use. In 2018, while writing for The Cut, Katy Schneider diagnosed Mark Cuban with grave accuracy.

“He disguises ‘law’ as a question, but in reality it’s the opposite: a shallow, affective affirmation of what he’s just said, a brief affirmative pause between one confident statement and the next,” she wrote. Soon she was hearing it everywhere, “often used by experts, podcast hosts, and TED talk speakers”.

Mignon Fogarty, presenter of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and author of seven books on the subject of language, warns that anger and appreciation are often intertwined when there is a change in language. “When you don’t like someone, it’s easy to criticize their speech to make that manifest,” she said. As someone who records a weekly audio broadcast on language, she knows this firsthand.

In 2014, after receiving complaints about the number of times she started sentences with “so,” Ms. Fogarty suggested a story idea to one of her contributors: Is this habit condescending? The author was Dr. Graves, and the answer, it turned out, was a complicated one.

For a young, aspiring Facebook founder, part of the job was to talk in such a way that he whizzed through premises on the way to the pitch. Former speechwriter for Mr. Zuckerberg, Kate Losse, described his speech in her memoir “Boy Kings” as “a combination of efficient shorthand and imperialist trust”. Also: “flat”, but with a “boyish rhythm”.

However, the job has changed. What may be the reason why ZuckTalk sounds slow … a bit old as a speaking style? Or maybe just ubiquitous.

Even Mr. Zuckerberg seems to have noticed. According to Marquette University’s Zuckerberg Files project transcripts, the distilled one is “right? so “is the building after a high point in 2016 – a lot to tell! a lot to explain! – fallen out of favor in the encyclopedia of the Facebook creator.

However, “right” and “so” are at home in the world that he helped to shape. They are tools for the explainer among us and have spread as such: in media interviews, seminars, lectures and speeches. Thanks to social media – the always challenging machine – everyone now has the chance or has to explain themselves in front of an audience.

“So” feels comfortable in front of the YouTube video; “Right” underlines the Instagram Live handy; a “right? so “maneuver clears dead air in a podcast. These twists are unlikely to go away anytime soon, so we might as well get used to them. To the right?

For Context is a column that explores the boundaries of digital culture.

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