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I Think, Um, Maybe

The key to this is an idea called linguistic co-ordination, in which speakers naturally copy the style of their interlocutors. Human behaviour experts have long studied the way individuals can copy the body language or tone of voice of their peers, some have even studied how this effect reveals the power differences between members of the group.

Now Kleinberg and so say the same thing happens with language style. They focus on the way that interlocutors copy each other’s use of certain types of words in sentences. In particular, they look at functional words that provide a grammatical framework for sentences but lack much meaning in themselves (the bold words in this sentence, for example). Functional words fall into categories such as articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, high-frequency adverbs and so on.

The question that Kleinberg and co ask is this: given that one person uses a certain type of functional word in a sentence, what is the chance that the responder also uses it?

From Algorithm Measures Human Pecking Order.

A definite side-effect of switching from a female-dominated field (social work) to a male-dominated field (tech startup), I’ve been much more aware of my communication style. More often than not, I’m rereading sentences to strip all of the unnecessary I think‘s, maybe‘s, and I’m not sure, but‘s from my posts and comments. While I would never completely change how I communicate, I do think it benefits me to be more aware of the ways in which my linguistic background affects how I come across to peers from a different background. Or maybe I’m not-so-subsconsciously performing the linguistic coordination mentioned in the article above.

As these studies make our ways of interacting more transparent, I hope this little girl is an indication of the things to come. She’s also just plain ol’ awesome:

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