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linguistic style matching (LSM)

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Definition:

In conversation, texting, emailing, and other forms of interactive communication, the tendency of participants to use a common vocabulary and similar sentence structures.

The term linguistic style matching (also called language style matching or simply style matching) was introduced by Kate G. Niederhoffer and James W. Pennebaker in their article "Linguistic Style Matching in Social Interaction" (Language and Social Psychology, 2002).

In a later article, "Sharing One's Story," Niederhoffer and Pennebaker note that "people are inclined to match conversation partners in linguistic style, regardless of their intentions and reactions" (The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2011).

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Examples and Observations:

  • Robin: To an outsider listening to their conversation, very healthy families are less easy to understand than average ones.

    John: Less? Because?

    Robin: Their conversation is quicker, more complicated. They interrupt and finish each other's sentences. There are big jumps from one idea to another idea as though bits of the argument are missed out.

    John: But it's only outsiders that find it confusing?

    Robin: Exactly. The conversation isn't as tidy and logical and carefully structured as it can be with somewhat less healthy families, nearer the middle of the range. Ideas are coming so thick and fast that they keep interrupting and capping each other's statements. They can do that because everyone grasps what other people are trying to say before they've finished saying it.

    John: Because they understand each other so well.

    Robin: Right. So what looks like lack of control is actually a sign of their unusually good communication.
    (Robin Skynner and John Cleese, Life and How to Survive It. W.W. Norton, 1995)


  • Linguistic Style Matching in Relationships
    "Attraction is not all about good looks; a pleasant conversation is important too. To test the idea, [Eli] Finkel, [Paul] Eastwick, and their colleagues [at Northwestern University] looked at language-style matching, or how much individuals matched their conversation to that of their partner orally or in writing, and how it related to attraction. This verbal coordination is something we unconsciously do, at least a little bit, with anyone we speak to, but the researchers wondered if a high level of synchrony might offer clues about what types of people individuals would want to see again.

    "In an initial study the researchers analyzed forty speed dates for language use. They found that the more similar the two daters' language was, the more likely it was that they would want to meet up again. So far, so good. But might that language-style matching also help predict whether a date or two will progress to a committed relationship? To find out, the researchers analyzed instant messages from committed couples who chatted daily, and compared the level of language-style matching with relationship stability measures gathered using a standardized questionnaire. Three months later the researchers checked back to see if those couples were still together and had them fill out another questionnaire.

    "The group found that language-style matching was also predictive of relationship stability. People in relationships with high levels of language-style matching were almost twice as likely to still be together when the researchers followed up with them three months later. Apparently conversation, or at least the ability to sync up and get on the same page, mattered."
    (Kayt Sukel, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships. Free Press, 2012)


  • Patterns of Linguistic Style Matching
    "[P]eople also converge in the ways they talk--they tend to adopt the same levels of formality, emotionality, and cognitive complexity. In other words, people tend to use the same groups of function words at similar rates. Further, the more the two people are engaged with one another, the more closely their function words match.

    "The matching of function words is called language style matching, or LSM. Analyses of conversations find that LSM occurs within the first fifteen to thirty seconds of any interaction and is generally beyond conscious awareness. . . .

    "Style matching waxes and wanes over the course of a conversation. In most conversations, style matching usually starts out quite high and then gradually drops as the people continue to talk. The reason for this pattern is that at the beginning of the conversation it's important to connect with the other person. . . . As the conversation rolls on, the speakers begin to get more comfortable and their attention starts to wander. There are times, however, that style matching will immediately increase."
    (James W. Pennnebaker, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Bloomsbury Press, 2011)


  • Linguistic Style Matching in Hostage Negotiations
    "Taylor and Thomas (2008) reviewed 18 categories of linguistic style in four successful and five unsuccessful negotiations. They found that at the conversational level successful negotiations involved more coordination of linguistic styles between the hostage taker and negotiator, including problem-solving style, interpersonal thoughts, and expressions of emotion. When negotiators communicated in short, positive bursts and used low sentence complexity and concrete thinking, hostage takers would often match this style. . . . Overall, the driving factor that determined linguistic style-matching behavior depended on the dominant party in the negotiation: Successful cases were marked by the negotiator taking the dominant role, implementing a positive dialogue, and dictating the hostage taker's response."
    (Russell E. Palarea, Michel G. Gelles, and Kirk L. Rowe, "Crisis and Hostage Negotiation." Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications, 2nd ed., ed. by Carrie Kennedy and Eric A. Zillmer. Guilford Press, 2012)


  • Historical Style Matching
    "Recently the style matching among historical figures has been examined using archival records. One case involves the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, a 19th century English couple who met and eventually married in the middle of their writing careers. By tracking their poetry, a sense of their oscillations in their relationship emerged."
    (James W. Pennnebaker,, Frederica Facchin, and Davide Margola, "What Our Words Say About Us: The Effects of Writing and Language." Close Relationships and Community Psychology: An International Perspective, ed. by Vittorio Cigoli and Marialuisa Gennari. FrancoAngeli, 2010)


  • "Linguistic Style Matching in Fiction
    "People don't talk the same way unless they are joined together in some common purpose, have common lives, goals, desires. The great mistake of so many prose writers in their transcription of speech is to record its syntactical eccentricities and habits carelessly; e.g., they'll have an uneducated laborer speak the same way as an uneducated thug. Or, a cop will speak the same way as those he bullies and arrests. The mark of brilliance and honesty in speech transcription resides in the differentiation of language patterns."
    (Gilbert Sorrentino, "Hubert Selby." Something Said: Essays by Gilbert Sorrentino. North Point, 1984)
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