Monday, September 12, 2011

Listening too closely

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, linguistics, psychology

There is a proverb, that good liars give lots of details, but the best liars don't. But there is no proverb that tells us liars very seldom use the words I, me or my. Yet it is true. Lying is hard work. It doesn't pay to be introspective when your every effort must be directed to confabulation.

More interestingly, in America's "classless" society, we still estimate social ranking. It takes some work, but listen to two people talking together. One will use "I" words (I, me or my) much more than the other, who will instead use many more "us" words (we, us or our). Guess which one is dominant (stay tuned)?

Psychology Professor James W. Pennebaker, who likes to be called "Jamie", will be the first to tell you that catching such cues from active conversation is very difficult. He calls such words "stealth words" and "function words". In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, he notes that we are attuned to listen for content words, words that reveal the subject or object of what we are hearing. Pronouns, articles (a, an and the), and prepositions, for example, just slip right by us. When we read, they slip by just as readily. Have you noticed, for example, that prior to this sentence I have not written any "I" words except as examples? That was hard: I usually write this blog in a self-reflective mood.

To make more accurate measures of the use of stealth words, and to avoid wear and tear on his graduate students, Jamie and his colleagues have developed a number of computer methods for analyzing text by counting the percent use of as many as 80 families of words. The most revealing of these are pronouns and other small words, the little words that glue our sentences together.

We often joke that people who have been married a long time start to resemble one another. In Dr. Pennebaker's research, he and his colleagues have found that they are even more likely to sound alike. In fact, we all tend to pick up the speaking style of those we spend time with, and the more we like someone, the more we will speak like them. We are also likely to pick up the speech patterns and accent of anyone we consider dominant (except for that I-we thing). Until recently, my supervisor was an Englishman, and people could always tell when I'd spent my monthly one-on-one review with him. It would take me half the day to shed the British accent. This was true of everyone except one fellow from India, whose accent was anglified already.

The web site contains several interesting exercises. One of them compares two pieces of text for similar patterns in the use of stealth words, and no fair using two pieces of your own material. I entered two 100-word extracts from an e-mail exchange with one of my colleagues, a young woman who has a grade-school boy. The comparison revealed a correspondence of 87%, which is just above the average of 84% for people who are "friendly acquaintances".

Another exercise has you spend five minutes typing about a picture of a water bottle. The subject is so boring, I found it hard to keep going after about two minutes! But I persevered, producing 178 words (I can't resist calculating that this comes to 35.6 wpm). The analysis was as follows:
  • Visual Dimension . . . . . . . . . . . You . Average
  • Words on Label-Verbal Thinking . . . . 1.12 . . 1.74
  • Colors and Text-Visual Sensitivity . . 1.12 . . 3.74
  • Bottle Contents-Functional Thinking. . 0.00 . . 1.67
  • The Bottle itself-Tactile Sensitivity. 0.56 . . 2.91
  • Light and Shadow-Contextual Thinking . 0.00 . . 0.79
That does not please me much. The results make it seem I wasn't thinking much at all! Since these are percents, I suppose had I used the word "water" somewhere (I didn't), I'd have had a 0.56 score for Functional Thinking. Of the 178 words that I typed, the filtering program was only "interested" in five of them. Perhaps this is a computer's revenge. I have often called my profession of Information Science "the art of lying to a computer and making it believe me."

If you work for a corporation, do you think of it as your family? When you speak of the company (if you ever do), do you call your workgroup "us" or "them"? Try writing an essay about your work. Then count the instances of "us" words and "them" words. If the latter predominates, perhaps you need to update your résumé. And by the way, when you talk to your boss, you are most likely to use lots of "I" words. The political uses of "we" are found in the speech of dominant people.

I find it a bit unsettling that there are so many things that a computer can winkle out of my patterns of speech. Perhaps this is the next direction that Toastmasters type clubs can go: diction training, teaching us how to write a better college entrance essay (use more big words and lots of articles, and reduce "I" word use), how to get along with your spouse better (or at least sound like you do!), and even how to craft more convincing "little white lies" (leave the bigger ones to the experts like Bill Clinton). Who would have guessed that such a fun book of ten chapters could be written about the way we use the smallest words?

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