Language of romantic partners becomes more similar as relationship forms — even in text messages

April 17, 2021
Forget wearing each others' sweatshirts; now it looks like texting styles of romantic partners become similar over time. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Forget wearing each others' sweatshirts; now it looks like texting styles of romantic partners become similar over time. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

College-age romantic partners' texting styles become increasingly similar as their relationship forms, according to a new study that is among the first to investigate linguistic alignment in text messages.

Communication accommodations theory, which originally developed through observation of face-to-face interactions, hypothesizes that romantic partners' verbal and nonverbal behaviors become increasingly similar as a relationship develops, suggesting that linguistic alignment increases as partners "grow cognitively and emotionally closer, deepen their affiliation with each other and gain common ground understanding in their communication," according to the study. Moreover, the theory hypothesizes that as a romantic relationship develops, "Partners are motivated to increase comprehension and reduce uncertainty in their communications with each other."

While this theory has been studied in a number of different contexts besides face-to-face interactions, including within tweets and emails, not much is known about how linguistic alignment changes over time, especially in the context of text messages. The researchers set out to fill this gap in knowledge and to provide a new context with which to understand communication accommodations theory.

"I was generally interested in studying relationship development and doing so in a way that didn't rely on self-reports or asking people what they thought," said Miriam Brinberg, the lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at Pennsylvania State University. She added, "Language is very identifying; it's very complicated."

The study, published March 29 in the Journal of Communication, analyzed over a million text messages from 41 college-age couples, or 82 people total, across 6,243 days — equivalent, on average, to approximately 200 days worth of text message conversations from each couple. This is the first study to collect weeks' or months' worth of text messages from new romantic couples, and the first to use multiple metrics in order to examine the changes that occur in communication during relationship formation.

"By doing this, we avoid recall bias or impression-management things," Brinberg told The Academic Times. "And so, this was a way to kind of get a window into the relationship, particularly over time. I think it's quite new working with text messages." 

The researchers used a nonlinear growth model to examine how linguistic alignment changed for couples over time, using three metrics: syntactic alignment, semantic alignment and overall alignment. 

Syntactic alignment is a "stylistic" measure, Brinberg said, focusing on how people converse rather than the content of their conversation. It focuses on the similarity of particular parts of speech or function words, such as pronouns, conjunctions and adverbs, between conversation partners. 

To test this particular metric, researchers used "language style matching," which is based on the idea that relationship features are reflected in unconscious use of similar kinds of words. The researchers thus measured nine types of words: articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, high-frequency adverbs, impersonal pronouns, negations, personal pronouns, prepositions and quantifiers. 

Semantic alignment focuses on the actual meaning and content of the words. To measure this, the researchers used "latent semantic analysis," which looks at the extent of overlap and similarity of the words used by both partners, even if two different words are used to describe the same thing. Brinberg said, "With that metric, there's a way to represent words in high dimensional space," grouping words with similar meanings closer to each other. 

"So, if you're not using the exact words, like if someone uses pop and the other uses soda, but you're generally talking about the same thing, that's what semantic alignment is capturing," she said.

Overall alignment was meant to capture features of speech that are not in the dictionaries, or "netspeak." These are terms and words that humans use when communicating over text or other digital mediums; for example, "omw" is an abbreviation for "on my way" often used in text messaging. The overall alignment metric also captures nonlinguistic sounds, such as "haha," as well as typographic elements such as emoticons or substituting the number 2 for "to."

Across all three metrics, the researchers found that couples' linguistic alignment grew exponentially similar as the relationship developed, eventually leveling off to an "'optimal' plateau as the relationship developed."

The researchers noted, though, that linguistic alignment was already "quite high" when a relationship officially formed.

"Although linguistic alignment continued to increase (albeit a relatively small amount) after relationship formation," the researchers wrote, the greatest change in linguistic alignment occurred just before couples formally entered a relationship. After this rapid increase in language similarity, linguistic alignment eventually plateaus and continues to increase at a small but steady level, indicating an "optimal" level of alignment during relationship formation. 

This suggests that couples might reach this optimal level of alignment during relationship formation because "under or overaccommodation at this stage of the relationship may be detrimental," the researchers wrote, with underaccommodation interpreted as disinterest and overaccommodation interpreted as patronizing. 

Brinberg said she was excited about these findings, "because all the theories are mostly based on face-to-face communication, and so I was excited to see this reflection of what occurs in everyday life happening in our online communication."

One area for further exploration, Brinberg said, is who was becoming more similar to whom, something that this study didn't examine.

"There's some research in this area that looks at power dynamics," Brinberg said, though this area of research is not just contained to linguistic alignment in romantic relationships. For example, in a job interview, an interviewee might make their language more similar to the interviewer to indicate that they are similar to them, she said, or employees may alter their language to match that of their supervisor.

As with those instances, one might wonder if, in romantic relationship formation, there is one person who is changing their language to match the other, Brinberg said.

The study "Do new romantic couples use more similar language over time? Evidence from intensive longitudinal text messages," published March 29 in Journal of Communication, was co-authored by Miriam Brinberg, Pennsylvania State University; and Nilam Ram, Stanford University. 

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