Your Health


On a Monday it's a MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today in Your Health, we look at words and how by carefully studying the words we use we can discover all kinds of interesting but hidden things about our relationships and who we are, and how we feel. NPR's Alix Spiegel begins her story in Washington, D.C., where a group of men and women recently gathered for speed dating.

MICHAEL KARLAN: OK. Women sit facing me. Men sit facing the window. We've got 30 men and 30 women right now. We're going to get...

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's Friday night and 30 men and 30 women have come to a bland hotel restaurant in downtown Washington looking for love. The next two hours they will talk to people they do not know, one after another, in three minute increments.

KARLAN: Where the women are seated, they'll stay the whole time. The men we're going to have rotate every three minutes from table one to two, two to three, and so on. We'll do a whole circle...

SPIEGEL: Michael Karlan, the guy who runs speed dating for Professionals in the City, lays out the rules for the room. He explains that everyone should note down their favorites on the lined piece of paper that Professionals in the City has provided, explains that he'll be reading off funny questions before every date to help people spice up their conversation. And then he kicks it off.

KARLAN: Go ahead and start talking to who you're matched up with.


SPIEGEL: Now, as soon as Karlan does this, the room fills, fills with this incredible wall of words. Just listen to it.


SPIEGEL: What are these people saying and what can we learn from they're saying? About 20 years ago, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin named James Pennebaker got interested in looking more closely at the words that we use. Or rather, he got interested in looking more closely at a certain subset of the words that we use.

DR. JAMES PENNEBAKER: The, this, though, I...

SPIEGEL: This is Pennebaker reading off a list of the kind of words that particularly interest him. They're called function words.

PENNEBAKER: Function words are essentially the filler words. These are the words that we don't pay attention to, and they're the ones that are so interesting. Who, their, that, our...

SPIEGEL: Now, according to the way that Pennebaker organizes language, there's another set of words.

PENNEBAKER: Content words.

SPIEGEL: These content words, Pennebaker says, are heftier. Unlike function words, they actually conjure a specific image in your mind. He reads some examples.

PENNEBAKER: School, family, live, friends. Well, the way I think about it is I speak bad Spanish. And if I'm in a conversation, when I'm listening to the other person speak, I am just trying to find out what are they talking about? I'm listening to what, where, when - those big content heavy words. All those little words in between - the, is, etcetera - I don't pay attention to those because they're just too complex for me to pay attention to.

SPIEGEL: In fact, says Pennebaker, even in our native language, these function words are basically invisible to us.

PENNEBAKER: You can't hear them. Even though you and I are talking, you and I are not processing what the other person says in the terms of these function words. Humans just aren't able to do it.

SPIEGEL: Humans aren't able to do it, but computers are, which is why in the early '90s, Pennebaker and some graduate students sat themselves down and wrote themselves a computer program that could instantly count and categorize every word that it encountered.

They then used this program to ask all kinds of questions. Could you tell if someone was lying by carefully analyzing the way that they used function words? Looking only at a transcript, could you tell from function words whether someone was male or female, rich or poor? And what about relationships? What could you tell by looking at the way two people spoke to each other?

KARLAN: Go ahead and start talking to who you're matched up with.


SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to speed dating. See, one of the things that Pennebaker did was transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates to see how the couples used function words. This is what he found.

PENNEBAKER: We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date, who will match, at rates better than the people themselves.

SPIEGEL: Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that in these speed dating contexts, when the language style of two people matched, that is when they used these function words in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to contact each other later to go on a date.

PENNEBAKER: And - this is even cooler - we can even look at if we are dating, let's say we're a young dating couple, the more similar we are using this language style matching metric, the more likely you and I will still be dating three months from now.

SPIEGEL: Why? Turns out this isn't because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says. They can be quite different. But when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.

PENNEBAKER: When two people are paying close attention, they use language the same. And it's one of these things that humans do automatically.

SPIEGEL: They aren't aware of it, but if you look at their language carefully, you can see it.

Now, Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. But I want to share his work on one subject in particular because I found it fascinating. He says that by analyzing people's use of function words you can easily tell who among two people has more power in a relationship, their relative social status.

PENNEBAKER: And it's amazingly simple. Listen to the relative use of the word I. And the results are completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word I less.

SPIEGEL: To demonstrate this Pennebaker actually brought in some of his own email.

PENNEBAKER: These are emails that I wrote long before I started studying before you status, so I always thought manipulating this to make me look good or bad.

SPIEGEL: And again, we're listening to help people in different power positions use the word I.

PENNEBAKER: So here's an email that I received from an undergraduate named Pam. Dear Dr. Pennebaker: I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I've learned so much. I received...

SPIEGEL: You get the idea. That was Pam. Now listen to an excerpt from Pennebaker's response.

PENNEBAKER: Dear Pam: This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30?

SPIEGEL: Pam, the lowly undergraduate used the word I many times.

PENNEBAKER: Five times in 40 words.

SPIEGEL: And you used the word I?

PENNEBAKER: Zero. Not at all.

SPIEGEL: Now listen to how Pennebaker uses the word I when he writes a famous professor.

PENNEBAKER: Dear Famous Professor: the reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference. I would absolutely love it if you could come.

SPIEGEL: When famous professor wrote back, not a single I. Dr. Pennebaker says we use I more when we talk to someone with power because we're more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves and how we're coming across and our language reflects that. I emerges.

PENNEBAKER: Your attention naturally goes inward.

SPIEGEL: And how consciously are we doing it?

PENNEBAKER: Not at all.

SPIEGEL: So could we use these insights to change ourselves? Like Eliza Dolittle in "My Fair Lady," could we bend our personalities by bending the words that we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful?

After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.

PENNEBAKER: These words reflect who we are more than drive who we are.

SPIEGEL: Hmm. So you can't change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are?

PENNEBAKER: I think that's generally true.

SPIEGEL: Pennebaker has collected some of his research in a book called "The Secret Life of Pronouns," but says he feels the practice of using computers to count and categorize language is really just at the beginning.

It's like we just invented the telescope, he tells me, and there are a million new places to look.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Monday morning



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