Hierarchy fundamentally shapes how we act at work. In this paper, we explore the relationship between the words people write in workplace email and the rank of the email’s recipient. Using the Enron corpus as a dataset, we perform a close study of the words and phrases people send to those above them in the corporate hierarchy versus those at the same level or lower. We find that certain words and phrases are strong predictors. For example, “thought you would” strongly suggests that the recipient outranks the sender, while “let’s discuss” implies the opposite. We also find that the phrases people write to their bosses do not demonstrate cognitive processes as often as the ones they write to others. We conclude this paper by interpreting our results and announcing the release of the predictive phrases as a public dataset, perhaps enabling a new class of status-aware applications.
It seems such an analysis of language can be used to predict the success of dating!
See, one of the things that Pennebaker did was record and transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates. He fed these conversations into his program along with information about how the people themselves were perceiving the dates. What he found surprised him.
“We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves,” he says.
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.
“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.”
They aren’t aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of “I,” and “the,” and “and”, you can see it. It’s right there.
The study also looks at power dynamics:
But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.
“It’s amazingly simple,” Pennebaker says, “Listen to the relative use of the word “I.”
What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word “I” less. . . .
But in retrospect he says it makes sense. We use “I” more when we talk to someone with power because we’re more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves – how we’re coming across – and our language reflects that.
So can we modify our language in order to change how we appear?
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 we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful? Healthier?
After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.
“The words reflect who we are more than drive who we are,” he says.
You can’t, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that’s what his research indicates.
H/T MM. It’s from NPR. Where the hell else would I get it from???