What Do the Words You Use Say About You?

6 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

A lot.

Your personality can be determined just by looking at the way you text message. You can make accurate judgments about your favorite author’s personality just by reading their work. You can probably tell a great deal about my personality from the words I use in my blog posts.

Word choice can predict whether you’re depressed, suicidal or lying. Swearing makes you more persuasive. It’s true, asshole:

…obscenity at the beginning or end of the speech significantly increased the persuasiveness of the speech and the perceived intensity of the speaker. Obscenity had no effect on speaker credibility.

Word choice changes when you’re lying:

An analysis of 242 transcripts revealed that liars produced more words, more sense-based words (e.g., seeing, touching), and used fewer self-oriented but more other-oriented pronouns when lying than when telling the truth. In addition, motivated liars avoided causal terms when lying, whereas unmotivated liars tended to increase their use of negations.

Things that are easy for our brain to process feel more true than concepts that are difficult to process. This is one of the reasons we tend to like the familiar more than the unfamiliar. It’s also why we may fall for the glib and specious versus more accurate but challenging explanations.

It’s also why small words are more effective than big ones and why trying to sound smart actually makes you seem stupid.

Words affect our decision making. When crime is described as a “beast” people favor police and jails, when it’s a “virus” the public supports social reform.

But can words really predict behavior?

Boxers who spoke positively and referenced health and work before a match were more likely to win. Those who spoke tentatively and talked about social factors lost.

Speaking positively and using words related to “insight” is associated with outstanding achievement.

The way employees gossip about a company can predict its success or failure.

Via The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us:

And be very concerned if an organization’s employees start calling it “the company” or, worse, “that company” and referring to their co-workers as “they.” They-companies can be nightmares because workers are proclaiming that their work identity has nothing to do with them. No wonder consultants report that they-companies have unhappy workers and high turnover.

Which CEO’s are going to run a company into the ground? Count the number of times they use the word “I” in their annual letter to shareholders.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

Laura Rittenhouse, an unusual type of financial analyst, counts the number of times the word “I” occurs in annual letters to shareholders from corporate CEOs, contending that this and other evidence in the letters helps predict company performance (basic finding: Egomaniacs are bad news).

That word “I” can be very telling. Powerful people don’t say it much. Less powerful people say it the most. People use “I” rarely when lying in order to psychologically distance themselves.

By the same token, “we” can be extremely powerful. Just saying it can make people feel more positive toward you and create a feeling of familiarity.

Couples who say “we” often when describing their relationships are more satisfied. Use of the word “you” is a bad sign. Using “we” can even predict whether you’ll survive a heart attack.

From The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us:

A couple’s use of we-words when talking to a third party predicts a satisfying relationship…

In the laboratory, when talking about marital disagreements, we-words indicated a good relationship whereas the use of you-words suggested problems. The use of you-words, such as you, your, and yourself, were most apparent in toxic conversations—usually where the two participants were accusing each other of various shortcomings.

We-words may even save your life. In one project, patients with heart failure were interviewed with their spouses. They were asked a series of questions, including “As you think back on how the two of you have coped with the heart condition, what do you think you have done best?” The more the spouses used we-words in their answers, the healthier the patients were six months later.

Mimicking another person’s word choice improves negotiations.

In fact, similarity in word choice can predict who will fall in love. Examining the words of speed daters was more effective at predicting who would get together than watching them interact.

Words aren’t everything though

Your body language may be eight times as influential as your words.

Via The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive:

Language is an odd thing. We hear communication experts telling us time and again about things like the “7-38-55 rule,” first posited in 1971 by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian: 55 percent of what you convey when you speak comes from your body language, 38 percent from your tone of voice, and a paltry 7 percent from the words you choose.

(More on body language here.)

And in case you were curious: just like you get words stuck on the tip of your tongue, deaf signers get words stuck on the tips of their fingers:

The “tip of the fingers” phenomenon (TOF) for sign language parallels the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon (TOT) for spoken language. During a TOF, signers are sure they know a sign but cannot retrieve it.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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