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Matching Language, True Love?

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 12 (HealthDay News) -- The next time you have a first date, forget about chemistry and common interests.

What really matters, new research suggests, is whether your language styles match.

How can you boost the chances of that, you ask? Well, it's kind of like chemistry -- it's there or it isn't.

The kind of language style the researchers focused on was the use of such words as personal pronouns (I, his, their); articles (a, the); prepositions (in, under), and adverbs (very, rather) -- the types of words most people don't give much thought to.

But when this language style is in synch with someone else's, well, the sparks might just fly, said study author James Pennebaker, the chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his colleagues evaluated the language style of 40 men and 40 women who were speed dating and found that the more it matched, the better. When speed daters picked their matches, they tended to go for those whose language style matched their own, he found.

"You are four times more likely to match and probably go on a date if your language style matching is even just above average," he said.

In a second study, Pennebaker's team looked at 86 couples' instant message exchanges and found that language style matching mattered there, too. Participants were age 19, on average, many of them living in different towns as they attended school.

"These are wonderful groups to study," Pennebaker said. "They have notoriously unstable relationships."

They had to be dating at least six months. "What we found is if their IMs were high in language style matching they were much more likely to be together three months later," he said.

Those with the highest matching, he said, "were 50 percent more likely to be dating at follow-up."

The study was recently published online in the journal Psychological Science.

Some experts think you are attracted to a person and begin to talk like them. Others say when someone talks like you, you are attracted to them.

It may be a bit of both, Pennebaker said. And he feels that paying attention to the other person plays in, as well.

The new research may actually help reduce nervousness for first-time daters, said Jeffrey Hancock, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University. Because you can't give someone instructions in how to have their subtle language style match another's, he said, the only advice is "be yourself."

And cut yourself some slack, perhaps. "If you interact the same way the other [person] interacts, you are going to be in good shape," Hancock said. "If you don't, it's not your fault."

He agrees that paying attention to the other person also counts and, like language style, comes naturally. "If I really like you, I am going to pay attention," he said.

The new study shows that "the words we choose in everyday interactions are related to the success of our relationships, including whether the relationship progresses from a casual meeting to a romantic relationship and whether we resolve conflicts," said Rachel Simmons, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

In her own research, she has found that couples who use more "I" and "we" words solve problems better than those who use more "you" words.

She, too, thinks the language matching works both ways. "The more a person matches your speech and behavior patterns, the more you like them. The more you like them, the more you match their speech and behavior."

Pennebaker is co-developer and owner of a text analysis program, and donates profits from sales of that program to the university.

More information

To learn more about language matching, visit the University of Texas at Austin.

SOURCES: James Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology, University of Texas at Austin; Rachel Simmons, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, psychology, New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Jeffrey Hancock, Ph.D., associate professor, communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Dec. 13, 2011, Psychological Science online

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