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"Uptalk": How men and women use it differently

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 20, 2013 11:54 AM

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You may have noticed this linguistic trend in America: People, and especially women, often use a rising intonation at the end of their sentences, even when they’re not asking a question.

Linguists calls this phenomenon “uptalk” and they’ve studied how it is used in social situations. Men and women employ it differently, though exactly how is a matter of debate. A new study sheds light on these uptalk gender differences by consulting an innovative data source: contestant responses on the quiz show Jeopardy!.

Thomas Linneman, a sociologist at William and Mary, recorded 100 episodes of Jeopardy! and analyzed 5,473 responses given during those shows. Linneman found that, overall, contestants used uptalk 37 percent of the time, but that rates of uptalk varied considerably depending on the context: whether the contestant was a man or a woman, whether their answer was correct or not, and whether they were leading or behind in the game at the time they gave their answer.

Both men and women used uptalk more frequently when they were giving wrong answers, showing that people use uptalk when they’re feeling uncertain. But Linneman found that 48 percent of the time women used uptalk even when they were answering correctly, while men only used uptalk on 27 percent of their correct answers.

Linneman also found that men’s use of uptalk decreased as their position in the game strengthened, while women’s use of uptalk actually increased the further ahead of their opponents they were. This could suggest that power in a game makes men more domineering while it makes women either more diplomatic or, as Lineman hypothesizes, more uncomfortable.

(Though Linneman did find an interesting exception to this power rule: Men engaged in uptalk more frequently when correcting a woman’s incorrect answer, prompting the possibility of a kind of faux-chivalry at work.)

These uptalk “rules” are fun to think about and interesting to look for in social gatherings. They are also potentially useful: Feign uptalk next time you have a strong hand in poker, and you’re probably more likely to get paid off.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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