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Words Matter: Language Style Predicts Relationship Longevity

As we all know, the dating scene can be frustrating. For example, we’ve all probably dealt with the uncertainty of a first date in which we are trying to decipher whether our date is actually interested in us or if he or she is simply putting on a happy face to avoid hurting our feelings. Wouldn’t it be great to find a subtle way to determine whether you and your date are going to “click”? As you can probably guess, researchers have found a way to predict just this based on the words each person uses when communicating.

Here at SofR, we have talked a lot about why similarity is crucial for relationships. Normally, we consider similar interests, attitudes, beliefs, and values to be of greatest importance, but even similarity in names can bring us together, such as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries (Wait…what? They’re already getting divorced? Who saw that coming?).   

Recently, researchers have found that similarity in communication patterns predicts mutual romantic interest and relationship stability 3 months down the road.1 And we’re not even talking about similar use of big fancy words. Rather, it’s the small words that we would generally consider “fillers”, such as pronouns (I, her, that), articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, because), and the like that matter. In what researchers call “language style matching’” (or LSM, for short), individuals’ conversations may begin to subtly become synchronous. Sometimes our conversations are high in LSM, which means there is a lot of matching in language use, whereas other conversations are low in LSM, which means we are speaking to one another in quite different styles. In the researchers’ first study, 40 speed-dating couples had their 4-minute interaction recorded, and transcriptions of these interactions were entered into a language analysis computer program. Couples who had higher LSM (again, they matched in their use of pronouns, articles, conjunctions, etc.) were more likely to show mutual romantic interest in one another. This effect was not due to the total number of words being spoken in the conversation (that is, it’s not because two “Chatty Cathys” were paired up and talking each other’s ears off). 

In the researchers’ second study, dating couples had their daily instant message (IM) conversations analyzed by the computer program. Three months later, the researchers followed up with the couples to see if they were still together. Amazingly, the couples who demonstrated high LSM were more likely to still be dating, even after accounting for how satisfied they were at the beginning of the study! And astute SofR readers will remember that the type of personal pronouns being used in relationships (and me vs. we and us) can additionally predict relationship stability. So it seems that if we want to learn about the quality and eventual fate of relationships we should pay attention to the pronouns and the style of language we use.

Are you interested in seeing how you and your partner match in your language use? Check out the website for Dr. James Pennebaker’s (one of the creators of LSM) new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. 

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Ireland, M. E., Slatcher, R. B., Eastwick, P. W., Scissors, L. E., Finkel, E. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). Language style matching predicts relationship initiation and stability. Psychological Science, 22, 39-44.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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