Shared talking styles herald new and lasting romance

In dating game, conversationally aligned players often pair up

Listen to conversations.

A subtle, surprisingly mundane type of banter lies at the heart of romance. Love’s flames get fanned when a man and woman similarly employ words such as I, it, but and under in everyday conversations, a new study suggests.

Conversation partners’ related use of function words — such as pronouns, articles, conjunctions, prepositions and negations — augurs well for mutual romantic interest and stable relationships, says a team led by graduate student Molly Ireland and psychologist James Pennebaker, both of the University of Texas at Austin.

Unconscious verbal coordination of this sort, dubbed language-style matching by the researchers, signifies not how much two people like each other but how much each is paying attention to what the other says, Ireland and her colleagues propose in an upcoming Psychological Science.

Over the past decade, Pennebaker has led the development of a computer program that measures the extent to which people use function words or words in other categories when talking or writing. Other researchers have begun to investigate various types of conversations with the program.

“An interesting irony is that two people who truly hate one another will often exhibit a high amount of language-style matching,” Pennebaker says. “Two people locked in a bitter fight tend to talk, or yell, in similar ways.” Mostly, though, highly attentive conversation partners like one another.

“If you just click with somebody but can’t put a finger on why, there’s a fair chance that high language-style matching is going on,” remarks psychologist Paul Taylor of Lancaster University in England. Taylor has found that this type of conversational connection often occurs when crisis negotiators convince hostage-takers to surrender.

Romantic ties may indeed benefit from matching conversational styles, comments psychologist Simon Garrod of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Other evidence has suggested that unconscious mimicry of speech rate, emotional tone and mannerisms by a conversation partner increases how much that person is liked, he notes.

Function words tap into verbal coordination between two people because these words are independent of conversation topics and require shared knowledge to be used effectively, Pennebaker says.

If one friend works in an office building and another in a rock quarry, the two will use different nouns and verbs to talk about their work days but similar function words if they like and understand each other, he proposes.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed 40 conversations between speed daters, a recent focus of relationship researchers (SN: 2/14/09, p. 22). Opposite-sex pairs who talked using similar types and frequencies of function words were nearly four times as likely to express mutual interest in dating after the encounter as pairs whose speaking styles differed.

A second experiment found that among 86 young-adult couples in committed relationships, those who used similar writing styles during 10 days of instant-messaging chats with each other were particularly likely to stay together over the next three months.

After dividing the sample in half based on high or low scores in language-style matching, three-quarters of high-scoring couples remained together after three months, versus about half of low-scoring couples. This pattern remained after controlling for how much satisfaction partners reported in their relationships.

Pennebaker suspects that language-style matching waxes and wanes in close relationships.

An archival study of three pairs of famous writers supports that idea. In the September Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ireland and Pennebaker analyzed function words in letters between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung from 1906 to 1913, poems and plays of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning from 1838 to 1861 and poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes from 1944 to 1963.

Language-style matching diminished as each relationship soured. Notable declines occurred when Jung left Freud’s psychoanalytic group, when Elizabeth Barrett welcomed death’s approach while her husband dreaded it and when Plath and Hughes’ marriage fell apart.

During a speed-dating conversation, a man and a woman who ended up seeing each other again display a subtle form of verbal alignment linked to relationship formation. Click here to listen.

In another speed-dating chat, a man and a woman who didn’t gel romantically achieved little conversational coordination. Click here to listen.

Credit: Paul Eastwick/Eli Finkel/Northwestern U.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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