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"Ever Wonder Why Brits Sound So Smart? Right!"
According to a new Rutgers study, British and American English speakers use the word “right” differently in everyday conversation. Understanding this difference can lead to a deeper understanding of both language and culture.
According to a new Rutgers study, British and American English speakers use the word “right” differently in everyday conversation. Understanding this difference can lead to a deeper understanding of both language and culture.

Are the British generally more intelligent and informed than Americans? According to new Rutgers research, it sure sounds to Americans that they are. 

A new study by SC&I faculty members Professor of Communication Galina Bolden, Research Professor of Communication Alexa Hepburn, and Professor Emerita of Communication Jenny Mandelbaum, examined how American and British English speakers use the word “right” as a “response particle.”

The three initially became interested in conducting this research, they explained, when they overheard this “puzzling misunderstanding" between an American (GA below) and a person from the UK (AB) during this conversation:


They found that Americans use the word “right” to indicate that they are already knowledgeable or informed about a given subject or situation. By contrast, British English speakers, like AB above, use “right” to indicate that what they are hearing is informative, and relevant to the ongoing interaction. So Americans, like GA above, hear British speakers claiming that they already know what they are being told – even though they don’t!

Because the British use “right” quite a lot in conversation (more often than Americans do) and because of this difference in meaning between a British and an American “right”, its use might signal to Americans that the British are “smarter”. In addition, the British accent, which to many Americans sounds more sophisticated than their own, further contributes to the American stereotype that British people are more intelligent.

In developing their analysis, they “drew on a collection of approximately 125 segments of everyday talk, which includes 70 segments in British English (40 taken from ordinary conversation and 30 from different work environments) and 55 segments in American English (45 from ordinary conversation and 10 from work environments).

The study is significant, they said, because it “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. Our findings illuminate different ways in which speakers can convey their epistemic stances – i.e., how they lay claim to different levels of knowledge. Findings also demonstrate the pay offs of using the methods of conversation analysis for understanding intercultural communication processes and for learning about different varieties of English and other languages.”

Further complementary research, they said, 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 interactionally). Such analysis might enable us to explore whether the differences between the two language varieties are primarily linguistic (i.e. different particles are deployed to do similar interactional jobs) or cultural (i.e. the repertoire of interactional jobs is different).”

Their findings were published in the paper, “The Distinctive Uses of Right in British and American English Interaction in the Journal of Pragmatics in February 2023.

Learn more about the Communication Department at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information on the website

Media Coverage

American Press and Blogs 

Phys.Org: Ever wonder why Brits sound so smart? The distinctive uses of 'right' in British and American English

MSNScientists reveal why British people may sound intelligent

List 23: Why Do British people seem to be so smart?

Automatic Blogging: Why Do British People Sound So Smart?

Focus Technica: Why Do British People Sound So Smart?

International Press

Sputnik International: Americans Feel Brits Are Smarter Because of Their Usage of the Word 'Right', Study Reveals

Daily Mail: Americans believe British people are smarter because of their habit of saying 'right' instead of 'ok' - which makes them sound like they understand more than they do

The Times (London): Britons sound clever to Americans, right?

The Week UK:  Why Americans think Brits are cleverer

Gonzoo: 20 Minutes: Un estudio sostiene que el acento inglés suena más inteligente que el estadounidense

The Jerusalem Post: Why do the British sound smarter and more knowledgeable to Americans?

Trouw: Als een Brit ‘right’ zegt, begrijpt de Amerikaan hem vaak verkeerd

Unilad: Study reveals why Brits sound smarter than Americans





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