The words we use say a great deal about who we are, where we come from, and how we think. In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, psychologist James Pennebaker reviews a body of psychological research looking at how our use of language communicates subtle clues about our personalities and states of mind.
At a simplistic level, our words can be broadly categorized as content words (like nouns, verbs, and adjectives) that convey information and meaning, and function words (like pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions) that stylistically connect and organize communication content. Like A-list movie stars on the big screen, content words capture our attention. Function words, however, are like the behind the scenes collaborators that glue a production together but whose contributions go largely unrecognized as the credits zip by.
Simple function words (I, the, and, to, of, etc.) are the building blocks of language style and the most frequently used English words, but we’re least likely to notice them in conversation. Operating largely at an unconscious level, function words also communicate a great deal about our personalities, gender dynamics, social relationships, and emotional states.
Luckily, recent advancements in computer software technology allow researchers to easily look at our use of language and collect large data samples from peoples’ conversations, stories, therapy sessions, and even tweets and blog posts! A growing number of social psychology, personality, and behavioral health researchers are using computerized text analysis programs to quickly and efficiently examine linguistic markers of social and psychological processes.
One set of studies has linked depression to an elevated use of first person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) and a lack of first person plural (e.g., we, our), second, and third person pronouns, suggesting that these serve as linguistic markers of self-focused rumination (narcissists show similar language patterns) and social isolation. Poems of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets, for example, use significantly more singular first person pronouns.
Other studies have highlighted linguistic style changes occurring across times of personal crisis and upheaval. Single case studies of the diaries and final notes of individuals who died by suicide identify increases in positive emotion use and social references to others only as imminent precursors to the suicidal act. Public political figures and their speeches have also been the focus of psychological linguistic research, including presidential candidates, the Nixon administration, and Al Qaeda leaders. A timeline of personal upheavals during Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as NYC mayor was reflected in notable changes to his stylistic language use during press conferences.
Language style matching, or the degree to which two people implicitly coordinate their language use during conversations, can also provide clues to how people are getting along. Emotionally engaging interactions (be they loving or hateful) are marked by high levels of linguistic style matching between individuals. Successful hostage negotiations show consistently high language style matching, whereas unsuccessful ones are marked by dramatic fluctuations indicative of disruption and disengagement. Language style matching can help predict which speed dates successfully spark future interest or even which couples will survive versus split based on something as simple as their instant messages to each other.
Although these verbal indicators are really too subtle for us to notice without the help of computers to count the words, you still might want to watch what you say… you never know what secrets you just might be giving away.
By Jared DeFife, Ph.D.
For information about research, speaking engagements, and Atlanta-based psychotherapy practice, visit http://www.jareddefife.com/
Original article link: http://tinyurl.com/cqjvoph