Analyzing gendered uptalk on Jeopardy!

As part of a household that regularly watches Jeopardy! via the magic of DVR, I was intrigued to read about this sociological study of uptalk on the show:

Linneman’s study involves issues deeper than how game show contestants talk—specifically, the implications uptalk has for gender identities. According to his article, “The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, and some interpret this as a signal of uncertainty and subordination.”Linneman found that both gender and uncertainty played a role: “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.”

The use of uptalk is not merely an academic concern, as Linneman discovered with one of his results.

“One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show…The more successful a man is on the show, uptalk decreases. The opposite is true for women…I think that says something really interesting about the relationship between success and gender in our society, and other research has found this too: successful women in a variety of ways get penalized.”

Uptalk’s sometimes-negative connotations bring up the subject of how women speak, a provocative issue.

While this isn’t an earthshaking finding, two things are very interesting here:

1. It is a reminder that language usage and speech patterns reflect larger social forces. While individuals may have unique ways of expressing themselves, language and expression is also learned behavior influenced by others.

2. Selecting Jeopardy! as the research case for this particular phenomenon is clever. While uptalk is related to perceptions of a lack of confidence, the contestants on the show should not have as much reason for nervousness as others might have about being on TV. In order to make it on air, they have to be smart enough to pass a qualifying test and then they have to pass an in-person audition. In other words, the contestants, males and female, are bright people. Granted, being in front of a camera is a different matter but these contestants aren’t caught completely unaware nor should they be fully perplexed by the questions they are trying to answer.

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