The Rise and Fall of ‘ZuckTalk’

So, there’s this oratory style that asks for validation while bulldozing through almost any topic, right?,

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

Right?

Maybe you know someone who talks like this. It’s a disorienting speaking style, one that marries supreme confidence with nervous filler words and a fear of pauses. Maybe you overhear this voice talking to a date about meme stocks.

Maybe you hear it pitching a counterintuitive regulatory proposal on TV, or on a podcast, explaining which complicated things are actually simple and which simple things are actually complicated. Maybe it’s an executive on an earnings call, in an interview or pacing around a stage, delivering a Jobsian message in a Gatesian tone.

Maybe you hear Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook. The style didn’t originate with him, nor is he responsible for its spread. He may, however, be its most visible and successful practitioner.

During his frequent public appearances, Mr. Zuckerberg can be heard expounding on all sorts of topics in this manner: the future of tech (“in terms of augmented reality, right, so there is virtual reality. …”); the early days of his social network (“there was no feed, right?”); human progress (“right, so, I mean life expectancy has gone up from about 50 to about 75”); Facebook’s mission (“you know, what I care about is giving people the power to share, giving every person a voice so we can make the world more open and connected. Right?”); “the history of science” (“most big scientific breakthroughs are driven by new tools, right, new ways of seeing things, right?”).

This is the voice of someone — in this case, and often, a man — who is as comfortable speaking about virtually any subject as he is uncomfortable speaking at all. (This is not the careful, measured voice of Sheryl Sandberg, the cheerily blustering awkwardness of Elon Musk.) It is, by default, one of the defining communication styles of its time. Right?

ZuckTalk is a style of unpolished speech exhibited in contexts where polish is customary. It’s a linguistic hooded sweatshirt in a metaphorical boardroom. It is more than a collection of tics, but its tics are crucial to understanding it.

One: So. Another: Right? In their Zuckerbergian ultimate form, combined as a programmatic if-then connective move: Right? So.

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Linguistic observers have noted for years the apparent rise of “so” in connection with the popularization of certain subjects and modes of speech. In 2010, in The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas announced the arrival of a new species of the unassuming word.

“‘So’ may be the new ‘well,’ ‘um,’ ‘oh’ and ‘like.’ No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning,” he wrote, crediting the journalist Michael Lewis with documenting its use among programmers at Microsoft more than a decade earlier.

In 2015, in a story for “Fresh Air” on NPR, Geoff Nunberg, the program’s longtime linguist, explained this use of “so” as a cue used by “people who can’t answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the back story,” he said. Hence his name for it: back story “so.”

Syelle Graves, a linguist and the 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 uses of this particular “so.” Analyzing a sampling of spontaneous, unwritten American speech from 1990 to 2011, she concluded that this usage of “so” had indeed increased significantly, often as a stand-in for “well.”

By examining online posts, she also found that people were not only noticing its spread — they were also often irritated by it. “One of the most surprising results was that some public posters associated back story ‘so’ with women, but just as many associated it with men,” Dr. Graves wrote in an email.

Later, Dr. Graves conducted a survey in which subjects responded to recordings of men and women providing identical answers to questions, with “so” and “well” spliced in at the beginning. “In a nutshell, the woman who answered with back story ‘so’ was rated as less authoritative, more trendy and more like a ‘valley girl’ than the exact same woman who answered questions with well,” she said.

“The man who answered questions with back story ‘so’ was less likable, more condescending and more like a ‘tech bro’ than the exact same recording of the exact same man who answered with ‘well,'” she said.

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

Well into the era of “so,” another linguistic trend was receiving much more attention: vocal fry.

The term describes a manner of speaking — also known as “creaky voice” — that carries with it a number of gendered connotations. Studies have suggested that women with vocal fry are often judged as less competent, less intelligent and less qualified than those without.

In popular culture, vocal fry became a joke, then its defense a minor cause; in countless YouTube comment sections, it was a way for sexist people to briefly masquerade as concerned prescriptive linguists in order to complain, once again, about how women talk.

Male-coded speaking styles are subject to somewhat less scrutiny. That’s not to say they go completely unnoticed. Users on Quora, a sort of professional class Yahoo! Answers, which is popular among employees in tech and tech-adjacent industries and skews male, have returned again and again to the same question: “When and why did everyone start ending sentences with ‘right?'”

This is what’s called a question-tag “right,” similar to a British “innit,” a Canadian “eh” or a French “n’est-ce pas.” (See also: “Correct?” “Is it not?” “No?” “OK?”)

To hear Quora users tell it, “right” is endemic in their worlds. “I suspect that this speaking technique may have possibly developed as a result of the proliferation of podcasts, TED Talks and NPR-type radio programs,” one user wrote. “Because they are not interested in what you have to say, they only want you to affirm/confirm what they are saying.”

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

Micah Siegel, a venture capitalist and former Stanford professor, joined one Quora thread with an unusually specific theory. “My take is that this is a classic speech virus,” he wrote. “I believe it started in the particle physics community in the early 1980s, spread to the solid state physics community in the mid 1980s and then to the neuroscience community in the late 1980s. It appears to have gone mainstream just in the past few years. I am not sure what caused this latest jump.”

Mr. Siegel isn’t alone in observing the prevalence of “right?” among academics in the sciences; a 2004 paper by the linguist Erik Schleef found far higher usage of related forms of “OK” and “right” in natural science lectures than in humanities lectures, speculating that they need to “check on understanding more often than humanities instructors.”

One plausible answer to Mr. Siegel’s question about what caused “right” to enter “mainstream” speech is that people from academic backgrounds like his — familiar with a culture of talks and presentations, most comfortable in settings with specialized shared expertise — are now public figures. They work on companies and products that, rather quickly, became extremely powerful well outside of the worlds in which they were built.

However credible one finds the linguistic lab-leak theory, “right” and its many variants achieved wide community spread. In 2018, writing for The Cut, Katy Schneider diagnosed Mark Cuban with severe rightness.

“He disguises the ‘right’ as a question, but really it’s the opposite: a flat, affectless confirmation of whatever he himself just said, a brief affirmative pause between one confident statement and the next,” she wrote. Soon, she heard it everywhere, “used frequently by pundits, podcast hosts, TED Talk speakers.”

Mignon Fogarty, the host of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and the author of seven books about language, cautions that, when it comes to changes in language, annoyance and recognition are often intertwined. “When you don’t like someone, it’s easy to criticize their speech as a way of manifesting that,” she said. As someone who records a weekly audio program on language, she knows that firsthand.

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

So

For a young, rising Facebook founder to talk in a way that whizzes through premises on the way to a pitch was, among other things, part of the job. Mr. Zuckerberg’s former speechwriter Kate Losse described his manner of speaking in her memoir, “Boy Kings,” as “a combination of efficient shorthand and imperialist confidence.” Also: “flat” but with a “boyish cadence.”

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The job, however, has changed. Which may be why, as a style of speaking, ZuckTalk is starting to sound … a little old? Or maybe just ubiquitous.

Even Mr. Zuckerberg seems to have noticed. According to transcripts from Marquette University’s Zuckerberg Files project, the distilled “right? so” construction is, after a peak in 2016 — much to talk about! plenty to explain! — falling out of favor in the Facebook creator’s lexicon.

In the world he helped create, however, “right” and “so” are right at home. They’re tools for the explainers among us and have proliferated as such: in media interviews, seminars, talks and speeches. Now, thanks to social media — the ever-prompting machine — everyone has the chance, or need, to explain themselves in front of an audience.

“So” is comfortable in front of the YouTube video; “right” handily punctuates up the Instagram Live; a “right? so” maneuver erases dead air on a podcast. These turns of phrase aren’t likely to go away soon, so we might as well get used to them. Right?


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

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