Are you a different person when you talk to your mom than you are when you talk to your colleagues? Do you show a different personality and express your views more honestly to your closest friends than to your casual acquaintances?
Most of us would answer yes to both questions. We’re well aware that we don’t present the same face to everyone.
Adjusting our actions and speech to the circumstances and the people we’re with comes naturally to normal humans. Even some decidedly abnormal folks do it too, thus the “He always seemed so nice!” comments from neighbors and co-workers after a serial killer is arrested. Ted Bundy, remember, could be absolutely charming, not just to the women he charmed to death but also to the people who considered him a friend.
Social psychologists say that our adaptive behavior demonstrates “the power of the situation.” K.J. Gergen, a prominent research psychologist, noted that in letters to friends he showed several totally different personalities. “In one,” he wrote, “I was morose, pouring out a philosophy of existential sorrow; in another I was a lusty realist; in a third I was a lighthearted jokester.” He was giving each person what he or she wanted from him.
Experiments have shown that the human urge to adapt is so strong that we do it unconsciously in conversation, responding to the speech rhythms of others. When face to face, we may also adjust our expressions and body movements to those of our conversational partners without realizing we’re doing it. Psychologists Kate G. Niederhoffer and James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas enlisted dozens of students to chat live online to determine whether coordination of word use and sentence rhythm would occur naturally between people who had never seen each other and knew nothing about each other. It did. Even the paired online chatters who rapidly developed a dislike of each other still demonstrated what the psychologists call “linguistic style matching.”
The results, Niederhoffer and Pennebaker wrote in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, suggest that “the way one person constructs a sentence and uses words primes the other person to do the same.” Regardless of the subject being discussed, the participants in the experiments used the same type of language and spoke in sentences of about the same length. “When two people are talking, their communicative behaviors are patterned and coordinated, like a dance.” But unlike a dance, it’s not as simple as who is leading and who is following. Both are constantly making adjustments based on the signals they’re getting from each other.
“If one person interacts in brief bursts,” Niederhoffer and Pennebaker wrote, “the other tends to follow. The pair has constructed an interaction style that maintains itself.”
To test the theory of linguistic style matching in a completely objective way, the psychologists studied many hours of the Nixon White House tapes of Nixon’s discussions of Watergate with his aides Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, and John Dean. They discovered the same “coordinated use of language” taking place, even though one man was clearly the boss and directing the discussions.
When does this mutual adaptation not happen? When one of the participants in a conversation is distracted or simply isn’t interested. People with serious mental illness won’t pick up conversational cues from others. Dyslexia or other learning disabilities may also interfere with the instinct to coordinate speech with that of others.
Reading about all this has made me hyper-aware of dialogue exchanges in novels. Fictional conversation isn’t the same as the real thing, of course – it has to be sharper and leaner – but it must seem genuine to be convincing. I wonder if we sometimes label dialogue as unconvincing because it doesn’t reflect the coordinated rhythm of real-life talk.
In the same way that writers must make invented conversation believable, we have to convey the complexity of a real human being in a story focused on a short period in a character’s life. How well we do it – how many of the character’s “faces” we can show convincingly, without making him or her come across like a split personality -- makes the difference between a flat character and one who lives and breathes in the reader’s imagination.
Do you find yourself consciously adapting your behavior and mood to the people you’re with? Do you do it to avoid friction, or simply because it feels natural and considerate – or because you can’t help it? Are you ever aware of falling into a conversational rhythm with others? Do your characters reflect these common human tendencies?