Our Use Of Little Words Can, Uh, Reveal Hidden Interests
One Friday night, 30 men and 30 women gathered at a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. Their goal was love, or maybe sex, or maybe some combination of the two. They were there for speed dating.
The women sat at separate numbered tables while the men moved down the line, and for two solid hours they did a rotation, making small talk with people they did not know, one after another, in three-minute increments.
I had gone to record the night, which was put on by a company called Professionals in the City, and what struck me was the noise in the room. The sound of words, of people talking over people talking over people talking. It was a roar.
What were these people saying?
And what can we learn from what they are saying?
That is why I called James Pennebaker, a psychologist interested in the secret life of pronouns.
About 20 years ago Pennebaker, who's at the University of Texas, Austin, got interested in looking more closely at the words that we use. Or rather, he got interested in looking more closely at a certain subset of the words that we use: Pennebaker was interested in function words.
For those of you like me — the grammatically challenged — function words are the smallish words that tie our sentences together.
The. This. Though. I. And. An. There. That.
"Function words are essentially the filler words," Pennebaker says. "These are the words that we don't pay attention to, and they're the ones that are so interesting."
According to the way that Pennebaker organizes language, the words that we more often focus on in conversation are content words, words like "school," "family," "live," "friends" — words that conjure up a specific image and relay more of the substance of what is being discussed.
"I speak bad Spanish," Pennebaker explains, "and if I'm in a conversation where I'm listening to the other person speak, I am just trying to find out what they are talking about. I am listening to 'what, where, when' — those big content-heavy words. All those little words in between, I don't listen to those because they're too complex to listen to."
In fact, says Pennebaker, even in our native language, these function words are basically invisible to us.
"You can't hear them," Pennebaker says. "Humans just aren't able to do it."
But computers can, which is why two decades ago Pennebaker and his graduate students sat down to build themselves a computer program.
The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program that Pennebaker and his students built in the early 1990s has, like any computer program, an ability to peer into massive data sets and discern patterns that no human could ever hope to match.
And so after Pennebaker and his crew built the program, they used it to ask all kinds of questions that had previously been too complicated or difficult for humans to ask.
Some of those questions included:
- 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?
Which brings us back to speed dating.
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.
"When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way," he says. "And it's one of these things that humans do automatically."
They aren't aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of "I," and "the," and "and," you can see it. It's right there.
Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. He's looked at lying, at leadership, at who will recover from trauma.
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.
To demonstrate this, Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.
First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:
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?
Now consider Pennebaker's response:
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.
Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used "I" many times, while Pennebaker didn't use it at all.
Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to 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.
And the return email from Famous Professor:
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 semiformal 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,
Pennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule. He says he thought of himself as a very egalitarian person, and assumed he would never talk to people differently because of their status.
But in retrospect he says it makes sense. We use "I" more when we talk to someone with power because we're more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves — how we're coming across — and our language reflects that.
So could we use these insights to change ourselves? Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, could we bend our personalities by bending the words we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful? Healthier?
After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.
"The words reflect who we are more than [they] drive who we are," he says.
You can't, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that's what his research indicates.
Pennebaker has collected some of this research in a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, but he says he feels the practice of using computers to count and categorize language is really just a beginning.
It's like we just invented the telescope, he tells me, and there are a million new places to look.
In fact, since this article first ran, Pennebaker has used his big data computer analysis to look at a wide range of new questions.
He's become a kind of literary detective, using the program to determine if a lost play was written by Shakespeare. (Results of that search should be published soon.)
He's also trying to figure out if function words can predict students' performance in college through an analysis of 25,000 admissions essays.
And he published an entire paper on the use of the filler words — um, like, uh, I mean and you know. One of the things that he found was that the use of these words — in addition to their function of annoying older people — was associated with conscientiousness.
Pennebaker has several other projects underway as well — using our simplest words as a window into our souls.
An earlier version of this story ran on NPR in 2012.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's Monday, Labor Day. And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in Your Health, we have a very close listen to the words we choose to speak. The way you use those words may reveal more about you than you know. One way to discover that is to hear people talk in a speed-dating session. NPR's Alix Spiegel has this encore presentation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MICHAEL KARLAN: OK, women sit facing me; men sit facing the window. We've got about 30 men and 30 women right now.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's Friday night, and 30 men and 30 women have come to a bland hotel restaurant in downtown Washington looking for love. For the next two hours, they will talk to people they do not know, one after another, in three minute increments.
KARLAN: Where the women are seated, they'll stay the whole time. The men, we're going to have rotate every three minutes from table one to two, two to three and so on.
SPIEGEL: Michael Karlan, the guy who runs speed-dating for Professionals in the City, lays out the rules for the room. He explains that everyone should note down their favorites on the lined piece of paper that Professionals in the City has provided, explains that he'll be reading off funny questions before every date to help people spice up their conversation. And then he kicks it off.
KARLAN: Go ahead, start talking to who you're matched up with.
SPIEGEL: Now, as soon as Karlan does this, the room fills - fills with this incredible wall of words. Just listen to it.
SPIEGEL: What are these people saying, and what can we learn from what they're saying? About 20 years ago, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin name James Pennebaker got interested in looking more closely at the words that we use - or rather, he got interested in looking more closely at a certain subset of the words that we use.
JAMES PENNEBAKER: The, this, though, I...
SPIEGEL: This is Pennebaker reading off a list of the kind words that particularly interest him; they're called function words.
PENNEBAKER: Function words are essentially the filler words. These are the words that we don't pay attention to, and they're the ones that are so interested.
Who, they're, that...
SPIEGEL: Now according to the way that Pennebaker organizes language, there's another set of words.
PENNEBAKER: Content words.
SPIEGEL: These content words, Pennebaker says, are heftier. Unlike function words, they actually conjure a specific image in your mind. He reads some examples.
PENNEBAKER: School, family, live, friends.
Well, the way I think about it is I speak bad Spanish. And if I'm in a conversation, when I'm listening to the other person speak, I am just trying to figure out, what are they talking about? I'm listening to what, where, when - those big content-heavy words. All those little words in between - the, is, etc. - I don't pay attention to those because they're just too complex for me to pay attention to.
SPIEGEL: In fact, says Pennebaker, even in our native language, these function words are basically invisible to us.
PENNEBAKER: You can't hear them. Even though you and I are talking, you and I are not processing what the other person says in terms of these function words. Humans just aren't able to do it.
SPIEGEL: Humans aren't able to do it, but computers are, which is why in the early '90s, Pennebaker and some graduate students sat themselves down and wrote themselves a computer program that could instantly count and categorize every word that it encountered. They then used this program to ask all kinds of questions; could you tell if someone was lying by carefully analyzing the way that they used function words? Looking only at a transcript, could you tell from function words whether someone was male or female, rich or poor? And what about relationships? What could you tell by looking at the way two people spoke to each other?
KARLAN: Go ahead, start talking to who you're matched up with.
SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to speed-dating. See, one of the things that Pennebaker did was transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates to see how the couples used function words. This is what he found.
PENNEBAKER: We can predict, by analyzing their language, who will go on a date, who will match, at rates better than the people themselves.
SPIEGEL: Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that in the speed-dating context, when the language style of two people matched - that is, when they used these function words in similar ways at similar rates - they were much more likely to contact each other later to go on a date.
PENNEBAKER: And - this is even cooler - we can even look at if we are dating - let's say, we're a young dating couple - the more similar we are using this language style matching metric, the more likely you and I will still be dating three months from now.
SPIEGEL: Why? Turns out this isn't because similar people are attracted to each other. Pennebaker says they can be quite different. But when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.
PENNEBAKER: When two people are paying close attention, they use language the same. And it's one of these things that humans do automatically.
SPIEGEL: They aren't aware of it, but if you look at their language carefully, you can see it. Now, Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things, but I want to share his work on one subject in particular because I found it fascinating. He says that by analyzing people's use of function words, you can easily tell who among two people has more power in a relationship, their relative social status.
PENNEBAKER: And it's amazingly simple. Listen to the relative use of the word I. And the results are completely different from what most people would think. The person who is the higher status uses the word I less.
SPIEGEL: To demonstrate this, Pennebaker actually brought in some of his own email.
PENNEBAKER: These are emails that I wrote long before I started studying status. So I was not manipulating this to make me look good or bad.
SPIEGEL: And again, we're listening to how people in different power positions use the word I.
PENNEBAKER: So here's an email that I received from an undergraduate named Pam. Dear Dr. Pennebaker, I was part of your introductory psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures, and I've learned so much...
SPIEGEL: You get the idea; that was Pam. Now listen to an excerpt from Pennebaker's response.
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?
SPIEGEL: Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used the word I many times.
PENNEBAKER: Five times in 40 words.
SPIEGEL: And you use the word I...
PENNEBAKER: Zero, not at all.
SPIEGEL: Now listen to how Pennebaker uses the word I when he writes a famous professor.
PENNEBAKER: Dear famous professor, the reason I'm writing is that I'm helping put together a conference. I would absolutely love it if you could come.
SPIEGEL: When famous professor wrote back, not a single I. Pennebaker says we use I more when we talk to someone with power because we're more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves and how we are coming across. And our language reflects that - I emerges.
PENNEBAKER: Your attention naturally goes inward.
SPIEGEL: And how consciously are we doing it?
PENNEBAKER: Not at all.
SPIEGEL: So could we use these insights to change ourselves, like Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady"? Could we bend our personalities by bending the words that we use? Could we be stronger, more powerful? After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.
PENNEBAKER: These words reflect who we are more than drive who we are.
SPIEGEL: So you can't change who you are by changing your language. You can only change your language by changing who you are?
PENNEBAKER: I think that's generally true.
SPIEGEL: Pennebaker has collected some of his research in a book called "The Secret Life Of Pronouns," but says he feels the practice of using computers to count and categorize language is really just at the beginning. It's like we just invented the telescope, he tells me. And there are a million new places to look. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.