Brits seem smarter than Americans, don’t they?

Are the British smarter and better informed than the Americans? Many Americans seem to think so, according to a new study, and it may come down to a simple difference in how we use a common word.

Oscar Wilde noted that Britons and Americans “really have everything in common…except, of course, language”. Although this witticism may seem flippant, it may actually have an important point.

A team of researchers from Rutgers University, New Jersey, examined how American and British English speakers use “right” as a response particle in conversation. They found that Americans tend to use the word “law” to show that they already know a topic or situation, and are knowledgeable about it. However, British English speakers use “right” to indicate that the information they receive is interesting and relevant to the discussion.

The word “right” belongs to a specific class of linguistic devices which are sometimes called “response tokens” or “response particles”. They register, indicate their agreement or take a position vis-à-vis the information to which they respond. However, despite its common use as a response particle, there has been surprisingly little research on “right” in this context.

To an American, the way Britons use the word “law” makes them feel like they already know what’s being said, which leads them to sound more informed than they necessarily are. Additionally, the British accent carries with it a stereotype of sophistication that many Americans believe also makes the speaker sound smarter. The situation is made worse (at least for Americans) by the fact that the British use “right” much more in conversation.

The Rutgers team was originally inspired when they heard a “confusing misunderstanding” between an American and a Brit during a conversion. During the conversation, the American was explaining a situation which elicited the “correct” response from the listener, but this confused the American who asked if this information was already known, to which the British listener replied. replied with a “no? ” confused.

In order to study this phenomenon, the team used conversation analysis, a method that studies social interactions and conversation in interaction, to examine the use of ‘law’ in American and British interactions. They relied on a collection of approximately 125 transcribed segments of everyday conversations and work discussions from a historical period ranging from the 1970s to the present day. In this collection of segments, 70 were in British English and 55 were in American English.

The research “sheds light on the impact of minute language differences, which we may not even recognize, on our interactions with others and our perception of their expertise and knowledge,” said Galina Bolden, professor of communication to Rutgers, in a press release.

The study reveals the different ways speakers can demonstrate their epistemic positions – how they relate to and claim different types of knowledge. The research also has important methodological implications for the use of conversation analysis in cross-cultural and cross-cultural communications. This could be a useful way to probe different varieties of English and other languages.

The study authors state that future work could “examine the whole landscape of these types of response particles (particularly positions) in US versus UK data keeping an eye on the types of positions they convey vis-à-vis previous discussions (i.e. exactly what they do internationally.) Such an analysis could allow researchers to determine whether the differences between the two varieties linguistics are mainly linguistic or cultural.

The study was published in the Journal of Pragmatics.

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