When you’re meeting someone for the first time, you’re probably looking at clues likes sense of humor, values, and interests and hobbies to get a sense of your compatibility. I mean, who hasn’t bonded over a shared love of bacon and Kevin Bacon?
But according to experts, we’re missing a major clue: it turns out that language style can predict our compatibility with someone much better than we can ourselves.
The research comes straight from dating hell—the speed date. 20 years ago, psychologist James Pennebaker took an interest in what we consider filler words: small words like “and” and “though” that string sentences and thoughts together. Together with his graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, Pennebaker built a computer program to analyze language style.
With that program, he analyzed conversations during speed dates, feeding the program with transcriptions of the conversations along with how the daters themselves were perceiving the dates.
Turns out, the program had a higher success rate than the daters.
Pennebaker found that when use of pronouns, prepositions, and articles (words like I, the, that, there, an) were used between two people at similar rates and in similar ways, they were more likely to go on a date after the speed date. Even more interesting, Pennebaker told NPR that the finding goes beyond first-time encounters.
“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.”
The surprise twist? It has nothing to do with us being attracted to people who are similar to us. Rather, when we’re around someone we’re interested in, our language shifts in a subtle way to match our conversation partner’s. “When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way,” Pennebaker tells NPR. “And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically.”
And if you want to know who holds the power in a relationship—whether it be with prospective dates or coworkers, just take a look at your last email and count up how many times you each use the word “I”. According to Pennebaker’s research, the person with the higher status uses it less—we use “I” when we’re feeling self-conscious and when we’re focusing on how we’re coming across, and we tend to use it more when talking to someone with power.