Question tag

The term question tag doesn’t sound very familiar, does it? Well, you’ve just come across one. The “does it” at the end of the first sentence is an example of a question tag: a question added at the end of a statement – in its most general definition. There are different kinds of question tags and each conveys a slightly different meaning, think of politeness, softening a request or seeking confirmation. Gender tends to influence what kind of question tags people add after posing a question. The gendered use of question tags, then, tells us something about the way people of different genders engage in communication.

First, some theory. We can distinguish two main kinds of tag questions: modal and affective ones. Modal question tags request information or confirmation of information of which the speaker is uncertain. An example is: “You know how to bake an apple pie, don’t you?”. Affective question tags do not seek information or confirmation but express a concern for the hearer. In a sentence like “Pass me the salt please, could you?”, “could you” functions as an affective question tag that softens the request to pass the salt. Besides softening affective question tags, there are facilitative affective question tags that invite the hearer to reply, as in the sentence: “These pictures are gorgeous, aren’t they?”.

So, question tags can be used to find information or genuinely ask for confirmation, to soften a request and to invite a response. Research amongst male- and female-identifying people shows that they use different kinds of question tags differently. Women use affective question tags relatively more than men, which could indicate that they take on more of the “interactional shitwork”. They actively invite a response from their conversation partner or soften their requests to make the hearer feel more comfortable.

Compared to women, men use modal question tags more (although men too use affective question tags the most), thus asking for confirmation. It could be that men’s bigger need for confirmation derives from social norms that demand men to be knowledgeable, competent and intelligent. Some find it surprising that men tend to use modal question tags more; these people expect women to seek confirmation because they are generally less certain or convinced about their opinions and beliefs.

Studies about question tags and gender are limited and sometimes have contradictory findings. A type of question tag that has hardly been researched is the coercive one, used to demand a confirmative response from their conversation partner. For example: “You will let it go now, will you?”. As the study findings discussed above demonstrate, the use of question tags sometimes runs counter to our expectations, thereby revealing social norms that may otherwise remain unnoticed (like men’s possibly higher need for confirmation). Think about how your use of question tags reinforces or counteracts gender roles and expectations!