Figure Out People From Their Words
By John Kord Lagemann
After a visit from a friend, my mother would review the conversation in her mind, the pauses, inflections and choice of words, then announce the real news the caller never mentioned: “Henry wants to sell his house.” “frank is going to marry Janie.” “Young Mrs. Cole thinks she’s pregnant but isn’t sure.” We now call “content analysis.” It’s a kind of systematic search for the small verbal clues that, when put together, reveal a larger meaning: attitudes, intentions, behavior patterns, underlying strategy. As Ben Jonson wrote more than 300 years ago, “Language springs out of the inmost parts of us. No glass renders a man’s likeness so true as his speech.”
Experts in business and science use highly developed content analysis techniques to measure changes in consumer attitudes and to diagnose emotional conflicts. Governments keep corps o analysts monitoring other nations’ broadcasts and printed materials to extract useful intelligence. Details that seem trivial by themselves have a way of adding up, when classified and counted, to vital information. I’ve found –as have many other people-that certain tricks of content analysis help you to read between the lines of ordinary conversation.
Fingerprint words. A word or group of words that recurs frequently is one of the surest clues to who or what is on a person’s mind. As any parent knows, you can easily tell which of your daughter’s boy friends is becoming the new favorite-sometimes before the girl herself is really aware of it –simply by counting the number of times the name is mentioned.
But the technique can have more subtle applications. For example, verbal fingerprinting helped a young lawyer handle a difficult client with whom other members of the firm had been unable to get along. The young man collected all letters and memos from the client in his firm’s files. As he read them he was struck by recurrent expressions and allusions typical of a certain period of English literature. Further investigation revealed the client as a prodigiously well-read amateur scholar, a shy man who hid his sensitivity behind a cantankerous manner. With this key to the client’s personality, the lawyer had no trouble in gaining his confidence.
The Big Pronoun: we instinctively notice how often someone says, “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine.” To most of us, excessive use of the first person singular simply means that the person is a bore-but it can mean something more. “when one’s automobile is our of order,” says social psychologist O. Hobart Mowre, “one is likely to refer to it oftener. Likewise, when a person’s psychic equipment is grating and squeaking, it is understandable that his attention should be directed toward it much of the time.”
Counts made at the university of Iowa and the university of Cincinnati demonstrate that hospitalized mental patients use “I” oftener than any other word-about once every 12 words, three times as often as normal people. As these patients recover, their use of “I” and “they” goes down, and their use of “we” goes up.
The judgment Test. One way of recognizing a person’s values is by cataloging the particular adjectives he uses to express approval and disapproval. With one of my friends the fundamental criterion is practicality: good things he describes as “feasible,” “applicable,” “functional”; things he doesn’t like are “unworkable.”
Several years ago a close friend of ours became engaged to a man whose usual words of praise were “powerful,” “strong,” “overwhelming.” Things he disliked were “weak,” “tiny” or “insignificant.” He seemed to judge everything on the basis of size and power. Our friend, on the other hand, was a woman of artistic interests whose value judgments were mainly in terms of “beautiful” versus “ugly”. It was no great surprise when they found they “did not see eye to eye.” And broke the engagement.
Images and themes: The metaphors, similes and analogies a person uses not only reflect his life experience but tell you how he thinks. Individuals have certain dominant themes, highly revealing of character. One man I know constantly uses images that suggest he is steering toward a distant landfall through buffering winds. His main concern is to “keep his bearings’ and “stay on course.” He urges friends to “state their position” and to be sure they “know where they are going.” A nautical background is indicated-but, more than that, a whole philosophy of life.
How do you feel? The late psychologist Dr.John Dollard of Yale and Dr. Mowrer devised a sort of emotional barometer by comparing the number of words which express relief, comfort, fun or satisfaction. They use this “discomfort-relief quotient” to measure progress in the emotional adjustment of a patient undergoing treatment. If in the course of a few minutes’ casual conversation a man has used no comfort words at all but has mentioned the “horrible” weather, the “appalling” headlines, the “dull” plays being written these days and the “aggravating” traffic situation, he doesn’t have to add that he is feeling out of tune with the world.
A similar formula was developed years ago by Dr.Harold Lasswell of the Yale School of Law. He counted the number of favorable self-derogatory references, and used the ratio as a measure of self-esteem. Dr. Lasswell also counted the favorable and unfavorable references to others. Comparing the two sets, he found that the person with high self-esteem tends to be well disposed toward others, too.
Grammar counts: verb tenses can provide a hint as to how much a person dwells in the past as compared with his concern for the present and his plans and hopes for the future. When the past tense predominates it may indicate melancholy or depression. Passive versus active is another clue. A decided preference for passive constructions-“I found myself there” instead of “ I went there” –many reflect a feeling of importance, active constructions a sense of power and responsibility.
Er…..A….a doctor friend told me once that in taking the history of a new patient he sometimes learns as much from the hesitations as from the direct answers. “occupation?” the person who’s happy with his job usually answers promptly. A long pause, a cough, laugh, throat clearing or sniffle may indicate trouble in that department . “married or single?” again, in this doctor’s experience, a hesitation can be meaningful.
Pauses may indicatetension or anxiety associated with the words that follow. “I, er, ah, love you” means something very different from a forthright “I love you.” Using clues like these, my friends and I have gained a surer understanding of one another, and even of ourselves. Content analysis will never replace reason or common sense, of course. But it can supplement them, and sometimes reveal messages we would otherwise miss completely.