In the past few months, I’ve gone out with several men, each with his own way of communicating. There was the guy who responded to every question with “That’s a good question!”—whether he answered it or not. There was the man who never let me add my two cents (if I tried, he’d just talk louder). But then there was that epic date that went from brunch to drinks to dinner and into the next morning—our seamless back and forth reminding me of how it feels to never want to stop talking.
It’s easy to talk, but it’s not always so simple to truly connect—which is why when we do, it can feel a lot like falling in love. Often, that’s exactly what it is. The way we speak is inextricably tied to who we are: our personality laid out in words, cadence, tone and nonverbal cues. So what makes talking so great with some and terrible with others?
Researchers have been working on answers to this question for decades. In the 1970s, social psychologist Howard Giles, PhD, observed that people tend to alter their speech to sound like those they’re talking to. That’s called convergence, and it’s a way we form bonds. Divergence—no relation to the best-selling YA novel—is its opposite, and it means emphasizing our differences. You might say we converge when we involuntarily mimic the British accent of the hot guy we’re grabbing coffee with (oops); we diverge when we remind him it’s an apartment, not a flat.
Even seemingly insignificant words have this effect. In a 2010 study, social psychologist James Pennebaker, PhD, found that he could predict whether speed-daters would go on another date by recording how often both used certain pronouns, articles and prepositions. Later, when Pennebaker analyzed committed couples’ instant messages, he and his team found that “language matchers” tended to stay together. He thinks language-style matching is a sign not only that someone is trying to engage but also that those efforts are reciprocated, two key traits that can sustain long-term romance.
But before you overthink every word, know this:
YOU CAN’T FAKE IT “Your relationship isn’t going to get better if you just imitate words,” Pennebaker says. Imagine trying to match every one of your boyfriend’s buts with one of your own. Impossible! Instead, listen. “If two people are paying close attention to each other, they tend to mimic each other’s language,” he adds. “And the more the couple is paying attention to one another, the better off the relationship.”
WE IS POWERFUL Love takes two, and successful couples reflect that in the way they talk. In a 2009 study, researchers found that married couples who use we more often than you reported greater marital happiness. Adding more we into your conversations may be awkward, but thinking about your relationship as a team effort is always a good thing.
DIFFERENCES AREN’T DEAL BREAKERS Communication gaps can break down along gender lines, says Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Men tend to shy away from eye contact, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not listening. Some men may talk a lot early on to impress, then later feel that being together is enough—just as women want more conversation. Still, a breakthrough is possible. “I always think awareness of differences is key,” Tannen says. How to get there? We could talk about that all night.