Your mother was right: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Especially in the search for romantic love.
A study by University of Texas psychologists James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland found that people with similar speaking and writing styles show more romantic interest in one another than those with more divergent language patterns.
The study, which was published in Psychological Science, didn’t examine the words and phrases most of us would expect. No attention was paid to whether or not the subjects used slang or SAT-prep words. It didn’t also look at the words we usually focus on—nouns and verbs like “dog,” “jet-ski,” “assistant,” “renovate.” Instead, the researchers studied subjects’ use of the small words between the big ones—“a,” “the,” “this,” “that,” “be,” “and,” etc.
Pennebaker explains that the way we use these “function words” defines our speaking and writing styles.
“Function words are highly social and they require social skills to use,” he told the journal. “For example, if I’m talking about the article that’s coming out, and in a few minutes I make some reference to ‘the article,’ you and I both know what the article means. But someone who wasn’t part of that conversation wouldn’t understand.”
In the study, researchers recorded pairs of college students during four-minute speed-dating sessions. Although the pairs discussed very similar topics—their majors, hometowns, etc.—a computer analysis revealed distinct differences in the way they turned their phrases. Pairs who showed above-average synchronicity were four times more likely to express interest in one another as the people in the other couples. In fact, the research team proved more accurate in predicting which people would pair off than the subjects themselves.
Later, the researchers examined the instant-messaging patterns between young couples who were dating. An analysis of ten days’ worth of online chats revealed that nearly 80 percent of couples with matching writing styles were still together three months later, compared with 54 percent of those with dissimilar patterns.
Pennebaker explained that when people are attracted to each other they begin to mimic one another’s speaking patterns and sync up. In other words, it’s not that we like the people who talk like us—we talk like the people we like.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.