Are British people smarter and more informed than Americans? According to a new study, many Americans seem to think so, and it may come down to a simple difference in how we use a common word.
Oscar Wilde famously noted that British and American people “have really everything in common…except, of course, language”. While this witticism may appear flippant, it may actually have a significant point.
A team of researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey, have examined how American and British English speakers use “right” as a response particle in conversation. They found that Americans tend to use “right” to show they already have knowledge of a subject or situation, and that they are informed about it. However, British English speakers use “right” to indicate that the information they are receiving is interesting and relevant to the discussion.
The word “right” belongs to a specific class of linguistic devices that are sometimes called “response tokens” or “response particles”. These register, signal agreement, or take a position toward the information they respond to. However, despite its common usage as a response particle, there has been surprisingly little research into “right” in this context.
To an American, the way British people use “right” makes them sound like they already know what is being said, leading them to appear more informed than they necessarily are. In addition, the British accent carries with it a stereotype of sophistication that also, according to many Americans, makes the speaker sound more intelligent. The situation is made worse (for Americans at least) by the fact the British use “right” quite a lot more in conversation.
The Rutgers team was originally inspired when they overheard a “puzzling misunderstanding” between an American and a British person during a conversion. During the conversation, the American was explaining a situation that prompted the “right” response from the listener, but this confused the American who asked whether this information was already known, to which the British listener responded with a confused “no?”.
In order to study this phenomenon, the team used Conversation Analysis, a method that studies social interactions and talk-in-interaction, to examine the use of “right” in American and British interactions. They drew on a collection of around 125 transcribed segments of everyday conversation and work discussions from a historical span from the 1970s to the present. Within this collection of segments, 70 were in British English and 55 in American English.
The research “sheds light on how minute linguistic differences, which we might not even recognize, impact our interactions with others and color our perceptions of their expertise and knowledge,” Galina Bolden, professor of communication at Rutgers, said in a statement.
The study reveals the different ways speakers can demonstrate their epistemic stances – how they relate to and lay claim to different types of knowledge. The research also has important methodological implications for using Conversation Analysis on cross-cultural and intercultural communications. It could be a useful way to probe different varieties of English and other languages.
The study authors state that future work could “examine the entire landscape of these kinds of response particles (in particular positions) in the U.S. vs. U.K. data with an eye towards the kinds of stances they convey vis-a-vis prior talk (i.e. what exactly they do internationally). Such analysis might enable researchers to explore whether the differences between the two language varieties are primarily linguistic or cultural.”
The study was published in the Journal of Pragmatics.