(USA Today) -- Would you describe a woman as "tipsy" but a man as "hammered"? The language you choose is likely to be affected by that person's gender as well as your own.
Women tend to use terms that describe others' intoxication levels as moderate, such as "buzzed" and "tipsy," according to a study published online today in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. This was true regardless of the level of intoxication. Men tend to prefer words for heavy intoxication, such as "hammered" and "wasted."
"Drinkers use a complex set of physical and cognitive indicators to estimate intoxication," says Ash Levitt, the study's lead author. "Understanding this language is important, as these terms reflect levels of intoxication as well as whether individuals are accurately estimating intoxication levels."
Previous research found that women tend to use terms that describe their own intoxication levels as more moderate, while men tend to choose terms describing heavy intoxication.
In the new research, Levitt, a research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and his colleagues had 145 undergraduate students participate in a survey in 2007. Participants read vignettes describing people who had been drinking.
"Results supported previous research by showing that moderate intoxication terms such as 'tipsy' were applied to female vignette characters more than male characters, even when female characters were heavily intoxicated," Levitt says. "Female participants applied these terms more than male participants."
By contrast, among men, "heavy intoxication terms such as 'wasted' were applied to male vignette characters more than female characters," Levitt says. "Male participants applied these terms more than female participants."
The difference in language may reflect gender and social norms. One possibility is that women downplay intoxication to fit expectations about how much women should drink, Levitt says.
When drinking heavily, women may be negatively perceived by their female and male peers, according to the study.
Levitt says previous research suggests that college men overestimate how much alcohol their male peers consume and how much they are expected to drink. It may be a case of thinking, "'Hey, I'm wasted and that's OK because that is what is expected,'" he adds.
But there are real-world implications for how people estimate intoxication levels, researchers suggest.
"Clinicians such as psychologists and counselors could use this knowledge to work with men to help correct notions that being 'hammered' is both typical and acceptable, and with women to increase awareness about the potential dangers of underestimating their own or others' degree of intoxication," says Mark Wood, professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island.
One consequence of women underestimating impairment is that it may lead to sexual victimization, says Wood, who was not involved in the study. "One example of this might be not recognizing a risky situation or overestimating the ability to manage it, such as recognizing and avoiding sexual assault," he adds.
Another consequence may be impaired driving, Levitt says. "Women may be at increased risk for alcohol-related consequences, such as drunk driving, if they or their friends underestimate how intoxicated they are," by using terms such as "tipsy," he says, "when in fact, they are heavily intoxicated."