30 September 2014

The power of small words

I read an interesting article the other day about what our use of little words can reveal about us.
Our Use Of Little Words Can, uh, Reveal Hidden Interests.

The article talked about how the author was at a speed dating event and became fascinated by the volume of sound - all those words in one place, then about what the people were saying. The author spoke topsychologist, James Pennebacker, who is interested in our use of pronouns and function words (e.g. The. This. Though. I. And. An. There. That. ...). 

People generally don't listen to pronoun & function words, and most writing coaches will tell you they don't read them either. We know they're there but we let ourselves skim them. People focus on the important words. This allows us to process information much faster.
e.g I was in a swimming competition and I won first prize. -- the words the listener is interested in are: swimming competition won first prize. 

So if we mostly ignore these words, what was Pennebacker's interest? What he found after years of research was quite revealing. First let's look at what he learnt as it relates to speed dating. 

"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. ... 

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."

What about more generally...
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'velearned 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.
Jamie Pennebaker
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. Iwould absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.
Jamie Pennebaker
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,
Famous Professor
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.
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.
Fascinating stuff - I recommend the whole article

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