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Language as Social Action

Language as Social Action

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Published by Andriy Savenko

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Published by: Andriy Savenko on Oct 07, 2011
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04/09/2012

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As the preceding discussion makes clear, our perceptions of others can be
influenced by how they talk; accent, dialect, and style are all relevant in this
regard. But in addition to how something is said, what people say should also
play a role in the person perception process. What people talk about is obviously
informative as to the nature of their personality. Some of this may be strategic
(as will be discussed in the following), but not all of it. Surprisingly, relatively
little research has been conducted on this topic.
Some researchers have designed programs to analyze the content of talk from
a psychoanalytic perspective (Bucci, 1997; Gottschalk & Gleser, 1969). These
programs are restricted to talk in therapy sessions and hence are rather narrowly
focused. A more general research program in this vein was undertaken by Wish,
D’Andrade, and Goodenough (1980). Participants were shown videotapes of
people interacting and were asked to rate each participant on four bipolar
dimensions (solidarity, dominance, task orientation, and emotional arousal). A
speech act coding scheme was developed (similar, but not identical, to Searle’s
(1969) system) and applied to the videotaped interactions. Sizable and
theoretically meaningful correlations between ratings and the relative occurrence
of certain speech acts were found. For example, perceptions of dominance were
positively correlated with the relative frequency of a speaker’s forceful requests
and negatively correlated with the use of forceless assertions. Perceptions of
solidarity were positively correlated with the proportion of utterances that were
attentive to the other person and negatively correlated with utterances indicating
disapproval.

William Stiles (1978) has developed a speech act coding system that has been
used in a number of studies (see Stiles, 1992, for a review). Although originally
concerned with therapeutic discourse, his scheme is generalizable to other
dyadic interactions. The system is an eight fold scheme based on three binary
dimensions: the source of the experience, the presumption about the experience,
and the frame of reference. For example, a question involves the speaker’s frame
of reference and presumption about the experience, with the source of the
experience being the other interactant. With disclosures, on the other hand, the
frame of reference, presumption, and source of experience all originate with the
speaker.

The most general finding in this research program is the clear relationship
between roles and utterance type. For example, doctors are more presumptuous
(more advisements, interpretations, etc.) than patients during a medical exam
(Stiles, Putnam, & Jacob, 1982). The relationship between presumptuousness
and role status is quite general and extends to a person’s relative status (i.e., a
person’s presumptuousness varies as a function of with whom she is inter-
acting). So, when a person is higher in status than the other person (e.g., a
graduate student interacting with an undergraduate), he will be more

LANGUAGE AS SOCIAL ACTION: SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE USE

73

presumptuous than when he is lower in status than his interlocutor (e.g.,
interacting with a faculty member) (Cansler & Stiles, 1981).
More recently, a comprehensive, computerized system for analyzing talk has
been developed by Pennebaker and colleagues (Berry, Pennebaker, Mueller, &
Hiller, 1997; Pennebaker & King, 1999). Their text analysis program consists of
a dictionary of words that is divided into a number of dimensions. At the highest
level, these dimensions are grouped into five broad categories: positive emotions
(e.g., serenity, optimism), negative emotions (e.g., anger, depression), cognitive
mechanisms (e.g., causal thinking), content domain, and language composition.
Samples of talk (written or verbal) are analyzed on a word-by-word basis, each
word being compared against the dictionary file. Research suggests that people
are relatively consistent over time in their linguistic style (i.e., the distribution of
words over categories), suggesting that this feature of talk represents an
important, stable aspect of personality style (Pennebaker & King, 1999). These
categories appear to have some psychological reality for perceivers; perceptions
of interactants are related to their linguistic style. Berry and collegues (1997),
for example, asked participants to indicate their perceptions of videotaped
interactants who were engaged in brief get-acquainted conversations.
Perceptions of the interactants’ warmth, competence, and dominance were
correlated with variability in their use of positive and negative emotion words,
cognitive mechanisms, and other linguisitic categories. Importantly, these
effects were independent of other features of the interactants, such as their
physical appearance and nonverbal behavior; linguistic variability was a
significant and independent predictor of perceptions.

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