Speed Dating: What You Say Matters

Photo by Francois Peladeau
Photo by Francois Peladeau

In the paper “Making a Connection:  Social Bonding in Courtship Situations,” Stanford professor Dan McFarland analyzed speed dating transcriptions to see  what role language plays in determining whether people “click”.  (Co-authors are Dan Jurafsky and Craig Rawlings.)

I recently met with Professor Dan McFarland (at Stanford’s Center for Education), and it’s clear that what you say, and how you say it, is absolutely correlated with whether or not you will give a high score on the “Did we click?” scale.

Couples (note:  all the dates in the study were male/female couples) are more likely to say they both clicked when the woman in the main focus of the conversation.  Women are more likely to connect with men who use more appreciations (“That’s awesome!”) and sympathy (“That must have been hard.”)  Coordinating pronouns is also indicative of feeling connected, such as when the woman is using “I” and the man aligns by responding with “you”.

This resonates with work done by James Pennebaker,  who found 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.”  Pennebaker notes that this isn’t simply because similar people are attracted to each other; instead, when you feel attraction, you subtly shift your language patterns to match that person.

Interestingly, women often reported feeling a connection with men who interrupted them!  However, when the conversations were examined, it was found that in these cases men were not interrupting to control the conversation, but rather to show understanding and alignment with what the woman was saying.

If a 4-minute speed date contains too many questions, that can be a bad sign.  The speed dates that were more likely to lead to a connection had fewer questions, presumably because both people were engaged in more interesting and emotional conversations, and did not have to fall back on the “So, what do you do?” types of questions to move things along.  This was especially true for the women.

Multiple studies have found that women are more selective in speed dating scenarios, meaning, they are less likely to check the box that they want to go on a date with someone.  However, this is likely a result of the traditional speed dating format, which has the women stay seated and the men move from person to person.  A speed dating setup that had the women move around found the opposite effect:  the men were pickier in their selections.

When I asked Professor McFarland what practical outcome the speed dating study could have for real-life dating, he raised the idea of using textual analysis to predict compatibility.   In another of his papers analyzing the speed dating data (“Detecting Friendly, Flirtatious, Awkward, and Assertive Speech in Speed-Dates“) they found that the computer was better as predicting whether the participants’ speech was classified as “flirtatious” than the participants themselves.  Using this method, an on-line dating side could examine the chats you were having with a potential date and see what kind of intentions the other person had, leading you away from a choice that might go nowhere once you met up in person.  Anything than can be used to prevent an awkward, no chemistry date seems like a great idea to me.

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