On TikTok, influencers speak in enthusiastic, lilting tones – but why?
Hey guys, I just got an order in from Sephora – here’s everything that I got. Get ready with me for a boat day in Miami. Come and spend the day with me – starting off with coffee. If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet, it’s likely you read these phrases in the same lilting, singsong cadence. It’s a phenomenon which has been dubbed “influencer voice” or “TikTok voice”.
To the untrained ear, it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly constitutes TikTok voice. According to Tony Thorne, a linguist and lexicographer specialising in slang and cultural history, “it’s not one simple thing, but a blend of various tones”. He adds that TikTok voice is often “high-pitched, breathless, youthful, with over-emphasised keywords and sequences, slightly odd speeded-up and slowed-down sequences, and coy intonation and body language.” Dr Christian Ilbury, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, adds that uptalk – where people end their sentences with a higher pitch as if they’re asking a question – is another common characteristic of TikTok voice.
Dr Ilbury adds that this way of speaking is not just characterised by a creator’s voice, but also the way they structure sentences. “What I think they are doing is using a fairly formulaic discourse routine in which they draw the audience’s attention in,” Dr Ilbury says, adding that this is particularly relevant on TikTok where videos are so short. Essentially, creators will normally stick to this tried-and-tested pattern: they’ll welcome the audience (“hi guys!”) and set the scene (“I just did a massive Zara haul…”) before going into the real meat of the video (“...and here’s everything that I got”).
“On TikTok, it’s such a limited economy of attention you’re basically vying for that attention and to be recognised,” Dr Ilbury continues. “Videos are monetised. How do you make money? By engagement. How do you keep people engaged? You use linguistic styles that are engaging.” A few studies have shown, for example, that uptalk successfully grabs our attention, as they implicitly invite the listener to confirm that they are listening (in the same way that someone might add “right?” to the end of a sentence). Far from making the speaker sound unconfident and deferential, the subtext behind uptalk is: are you listening to me? “To appreciate how relevant engagement is, imagine them literally reeling the same stories off in a mundane style or how we’d speak to our family,” Dr Ilbury adds. “We’d scroll on.”
As is the case with almost anything influencers do, one of the criticisms levelled at the way people speak on TikTok is that it is annoying, fake, and ‘inauthentic’. But this criticism fundamentally misunderstands the way speech works. “We have different ways of speaking depending on the audience, topic, and purpose. Some of those styles become associated with particular roles and jobs – here, it’s influencers,” Dr Ilbury explains. It’s true: most of us can imagine a train driver placidly announcing the next stop or a GP cooing “I’m sorry to hear that”.
Besides, the phenomenon of adopting an affected, theatrical style of speaking for entertainment purposes isn’t anything new. Take the half-American, half-British ‘transatlantic accent’ which was taught to and spoken by actors, radio presenters, and newsreaders in the US in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The accent largely grew in popularity because it supposedly made people sound more ‘refined’ and educated, but its dynamic, lilting timbre also kept audiences hanging off the speaker’s every word – not dissimilar to the way in which TikTokers talk.
Interestingly, while 100 years ago some Americans were putting on British accents, the opposite seems to be true on the internet today, with some Brits occasionally lapsing into an American twang. Take this video of Tamsin Wong: she speaks in a quintessential British accent 90 per cent of the time, but the ‘t’ sounds in words like “getting” and “state” sound more like ‘d’ sounds – characteristic of the standard American accent.
It’s something Thorne has noticed too. “More recently, influencers, Gen Z and TikTokers have used an accent that veers unpredictably between US and UK or combines elements of both, perhaps looking just for novelty and originality but also a cosmopolitan effect that isn’t too localised,” he says. “My own 16-year-old daughter – who spends hours on TikTok – has picked up a global English accent which is as American as English, but in which she can code-switch, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately”. This arguably speaks to the way in which American culture has come to dominate internet culture, with linchpins like the Kardashians largely acting as ‘blueprints’ for other creators and influencers around the world to follow.
@itsmejadeb This video took 3 tries and now I’m addicted to talking like this #tiktokvoice ♬ original sound - Jade
A more recent and obvious predecessor to TikTok voice is ‘YouTube voice’ – the loud, slightly nasal, over-exaggerated manner of speaking used by a wide range of creators, from vlogger Hank Green to ‘junklord’ pioneer MrBeast to beauty and lifestyle influencer Zoella. But as social media has evolved and the influencer industry’s worth has snowballed into the billions, audiences have fallen out of love with the artifice of it all and are more cynical than ever about the number of grifters looking to make a quick buck by shilling snake oil. The overenthusiasm and brashness of YouTube voice doesn’t wash so much with today’s audience – hence TikTok voice’s slightly more subtle approach. As Thorne puts it, TikTok voice is “designed to come across as intimate and conversational and informal and engaging, but covertly claiming authority and expertise and sincerity and seeking to impress and persuade at the same time.”
Ultimately, we shouldn’t be too surprised that everyone sounds the same on TikTok, given conformity is often rewarded more than originality on social media; just look at the legions of influencers with Instagram face. TikTok voice is an equivalent phenomenon; a pertinent example of how mimicry spreads like wildfire on the internet. “One particular attribute of TikTok is its replicability and the way its performances are ‘catching’ and go viral,” Thorne explains. “This goes for the language, too, so linguistic quirks are quickly imitated – consciously or unconsciously – and seem to become suddenly universal. Language works like this naturally, but not usually so quickly [...] but because TikTok is ubiquitous and global, its tics and traits and quirks spread very rapidly. Thus, an intonation favoured by a few US influencers can be taken up almost instantly across the Anglosphere and beyond.”