Little Words.

An NPR interview with James Pennebaker (whose book The Secret Life of Pronouns I briefly discussed here) brings up some interesting points:

One of the things that Pennebaker did was record and transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates. He fed these conversations into his program along with information about how the people themselves were perceiving the dates. What he found surprised him.

“We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves,” he says.

Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.

“The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context,” Pennebaker says. “And this is even cooler: We can even look at … a young dating couple… [and] the more similar [they] are … using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now.”

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.
[ . . . ]

But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.

“It’s amazingly simple,” Pennebaker says, “Listen to the relative use of the word “I.”

What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word “I” less.

Visit the link for elaboration on the latter fact; it’s always nice to see preconceptions overturned (not that I expect media thumbsuckers to take note and stop babbling about how some public figure’s alleged overuse of the first person allegedly shows how overweening they are).


  1. Anna J. Philactic Shock says:

    Architects are said to have enormous egos, the main evidence being skyscrapers (QED).

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