Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Thomas linneman

Gender and Uptalking on Jeopardy!

People ask questions both by the inclusion of certain words (what, when, who, where, how, why) and by a rising intonation at the end of a sentence, known as “uptalking.” In the last several decades, uptalking has moved beyond simply signaling a question to become a common component of everyday communication, particularly among young people. Maybe you know someone who consistently (and annoyingly) expresses statements that sound like questions.

Researchers who study language generally agree that uptalking is more common among female speakers than male speakers. However, they disagree as to the meaning of such patterns. Some (e.g., Lakoff, 1975) argue that uptalking is an indicator of female submissiveness that signals uncertainty and lack of conviction in what one is saying. Others, however, argue that uptalking establishes common ground between speaker and listener or acts as a way to make sure listeners are keeping up with a particular story (see Linneman, 2012).

Sociologist Thomas Linneman (2012) decided to examine the relationship between gender and uptalking empirically. Like me, Linneman is a fan of the TV game show, Jeopardy! The show’s been on TV for decades, so you probably know the format: Six categories with five clues each appear on a board. The clues have different dollar values. Contestants select a category and dollar value (e.g., “20th Century Authors for $600”) and the corresponding clue is revealed. The first person to ring in can provide a response. The twist is that the clues are “answers” and the contestant must provide his or her response in the form of a question. While watching the show one night, Linneman noticed that some contestants uptalked exclusively, others did so occasionally, and still others never uptalked, instead providing their responses with flat, statement-like intonation.

To see whether gender could explain these different uptalking tendencies, Linneman designed a content analysis study in which he coded the intonation of 5,473 responses provided by 300 contestants over the span of 100 episodes. He found that, indeed, uptalking signals uncertainty. When both male and female contestants gave an incorrect response (that is, when they were uncertain), they were significantly more likely to uptalk than when they gave a correct response.

But when gender was included in the analysis, some interesting patterns emerged. Women uptalked nearly twice as often as men. Furthermore, women were actually more likely to uptalk when they were winning on the show than when they were doing poorly. The opposite was the case for men. Linneman speculates that perhaps successful women use uptalking as a “compensatory strategy” to conform their gender performance to traditional expectations. Women who show their knowledge brashly are typically considered unfeminine and unlikeable. By the way, this phenomenon exists beyond TV game shows. In a different study, both male and female subjects rated female executives who voiced their opinions as significantly less competent than their more reserved peers; talkative male executives, though, were seen as more competent (Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008).

On the other hand, men are much less likely to uptalk when competing against other men than when their opponents are women. Here too gender may play a role. Norms of masculine certainty are especially pronounced when men compete with other men. When competing against women, however, they raise their use of uptalking perhaps “as a chivalrous effort to ‘protect’ women contestants” (Linneman, 2012, p. 101).

Although this study focused on the artificial environment of a television game show, it does illustrate how gender imbalances can be reinforced by not only what we say but also by the way we say it.