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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.
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