When you talk to someone for the first time, either in a professional, social, or potentially date-y situation, it's easy to pay attention to the proper nouns peppered throughout your discussion — pop culture references, mutual friends, the places where you grew up or went to college. But can you remember how many times you said "I" as opposed to "You"? Probably not. That's why psychologist James Pennebaker is so interested in function words, or "filler words," the ones we don't think about, such as The, This, Through, I, And, An, There, and That; they're practically invisible to us when we're in the moment or replaying conversations through our head, but they connect our sentences, and therefore act as a barometer of how comfortable we feel around each other. After studying pronouns for decades, Pannebaker believes it's possible to predict future romances and analyze power dynamics based on those tiny words. And I can't remember the last time I was so fascinated by a linguistic study.
So what do pronouns tell us about our love lives? Well, it's all about how we subconsciously mimic the way other people speak when we're interested in them. Pennebaker and his team recorded and transcribed hundreds of speed date conversations, then fed those interactions into a "Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count" program along with information about how people thought their dates went. He told NPR that humans automatically use language in the same way when they're into each other:
"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."
Whenever I spend a lot of time around someone — boyfriend, platonic friend, whomever — I can't help mimicking their cadence and picking up their slang, and I've always been really self-conscious about it; am I not fully-formed enough to retain my own manner of speaking? But now I know I'm just really into them!
But even more interesting to me is Pennebaker's research on power dynamics — he thinks it's possible to tell who has a higher social status or holds the power in any situation based on who uses the word "I" more often. You'd think it would be the person who thinks he's more important, but it turns out it's actually the person who feels more insecure. When we're fixated on how we're coming across, our language reflects our self-consciousness. Pennebaker said he was shocked when he realized that even he acts differently depending on who he's talking to; for example, here's how he corresponded with a young student:
Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I've learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?
Note how many times she uses "I" or "me," as opposed to Pennebaker:
Dear Pam -
This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.
Now look at his emails back and forth with a "famous professor":
Dear Famous Professor:
The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.
Now he's the one talking about himself! And here's the professor's response:
Dear Jamie -
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one ...and the conference idea will provide us with a semi-formal way of catching up with one another's current research... Isn't there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
With all best regards,
There are some fun tools on Pennebaker's website, like a service that analyzes your tweets — apparently, I'm very upbeat but also very worried, and luckily "average" when it comes to "Spacy/Valley girl" — and an exercise where you can copy/paste emails or chats and get a Language Style Matching (LSM) score — the more that the two people are paying attention to each other in their interaction, the higher the LSM. (Remember "Love Calculator"? It's totally like that, but mature.) First, I put in an email exchange I had with a younger girl who asked me about going into journalism after she graduated. We scored a .74, which is below average — most LSM scores range between .75 and .95, with an average around .84. Next, I entered in a Gchat conversation I had with my best friend; we scored an .89, which is above average.
The other day my friend told me she thinks that people who say they're not good at remembering names are so concerned with how they come off in social situations that they fail to pay attention to their surroundings. I'm horrible at name recall, and this article futher convinced me that it's probably because I think too much about myself when I meet someone for the first time. Pennebaker doesn't think we can use his research to change ourselves — "The words reflect who we are more than drive who we are," he told NPR — and I would feel like a wannabe pickup artist if I started constantly mimicking other people, but I doubt I'll ever write a professional email again without thinking about how much I use the word "I," and I feel like I might pay more attention to the way I talk about myself when I'm meeting people for the first time. Wait, I just said "I" like fifteen times. Okay, starting now!
Image via olly/Shutterstock.