The Language of Love

Posted on May 8, 2012


It is commonly assumed that the most powerful words in creating relationship consist of one of the following:

“Oh my, yes, ooooooh.”

“Hmmmm, baby, you taste so fine.”

“You make me hot all over ohmygoddoesallthatbelongtoyou?!”

Shockingly, this is not the case.  James Pennebaker, a psychologist who studies the use of pronouns has determined that pronouns are the best predictors of how people will connect with each other.  For example, when trying to attract another person in a short six-minute period at a speed dating event, most people will revert to one of the following opening lines:

“Hi, my name is Fred.  I have a very important job working for a Senate subcommittee.”

“Hi, my name is Fred. I was almost late tonight because of the big bulge in my pants.”

“Hi, my name is Fred.  Uh, yeah. So, uh, OK, uh huh. Yes. Fred. That’s, uh, me.”

But what Pennebaker found, surprised him. In his words:  “We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves.”

If you are asking “What is it about pronouns that is so special?” I will answer.  But if you are asking “What is a pronoun?” it is obvious that you were spending time back in elementary school doing things like picking your nose or wondering when recess would be, when you should have been paying attention. This blogger won’t bother to explain what pronouns are, because Pennebaker focuses on a subset of pronouns called “function words.”

Function words are the smallish words that tie our sentences together: The. This. Though. I. And. An. There. That.

“Function words are essentially the filler words,” Pennebaker says. “These are the words that we don’t pay attention to, and they’re the ones that are so interesting.”

There is a good reason we don’t pay attention to them.  Consider the following sentence:

“I am holding a gun, and it is pointed at your face.”

Are you focusing on the word “and?”  Probably not.  The sentence would have the same meaning for you as:

“I am holding a gun pointed at your face.”

But what Pennebaker found was that, in situations where attraction is concerned, these connecting words are critical.  Now consider the following sentences:

“I am holding a gun pointed at your face. I think you are really hot.”

“I am holding a gun pointed at your face and I think you are really hot.”

Note the use of the connecting word “and.” Once that is inserted into the dialogue, it gives the pointee another 1.1 seconds to reassess his or her life choices in having walked down a dark alley alone, holding a large bulging wallet.

Let us now leave those people back in the alley and return to the world of dating. Specifically, what Pennabaker 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.

Please refer to the illustration at the top of the page, showing two ordinary people at a recent speed dating event in Washington, DC.  Before the use of matching connector words, their conversation consisted mainly of the dry details of their respective jobs.  With the insertion of matching connector words, we can see that the emotional content of their communication has changed completely, and now includes some bare nipple action.

Let’s reiterate (This blogger will not explain the meaning of the word “reiterate.”): Use of pronouns, etc  is better than cleavage in predicting who will get more matches in a speed dating session.

“The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context,” Pennebaker says. “And this is even cooler: We can even look at … a young dating couple… [and] the more similar [they] are … using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now.”

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.”

So, what does all this mean?  It means that if you must walk down a dark alley alone at night, leave your bulging wallet at home.