Understanding the language of love

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Do the pronouns you use imply whether or not you’re connecting with your date?

When you’re dating, it’s sometimes hard to tell where a spark of chemistry or connection comes from, but it’s unmistakable once it’s there. You lean in to each other, you laugh, you smile more. Now take it one step further. Psychologist James Pennebaker from The University of Texas at Austin claims that when people are attracted to each other, they tend to use similar language. Not in terms of nouns or verbs, but pronouns – the stuff we usually don’t pay attention to – The, This, Through, I, And, An, There, and That. And this can tell you a lot about attraction.

Pennebaker and his team recorded and transcribed hundreds of speed date conversations, then fed those interactions into a “Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count” program he created along with information about how people thought their dates went. They used the program to ask questions like:

  • Could you tell if someone was lying by carefully analyzing the way they used function words?
  • Looking only at a transcript, could you tell from function words whether someone was male or female, rich or poor?
  • What could you tell about relationships by looking at the way two people spoke to each other?

When he analyzed the speed daters, he could predict which speed daters would match with each other based on their pronoun usage. He told NPR in an interview:

“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. People can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts. When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way. And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically.”

Some of his most interesting work centers around the use of the word “I.” Most of us assume that someone who uses the word “I” a lot would have more confidence and stature – a person in a position of power. It turns out, the opposite is true. The more someone uses the word “I” in a conversation, the more they are thinking about themselves and how they come across to the other person, someone whom they respect and consider in a position of greater power. They are more self-conscious.

Pennebaker claims we can’t change our language to change who we are, that language is just a reflection of ourselves. But we can use his research to understand ourselves better, to see when we’re genuinely attracted to someone and how our language reflects how we feel – including when we feel insecure or self-conscious, or when we feel happy and connected.



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