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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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Person perception has been one of the core areas of social psychology for
decades. Although research in this area has waxed and waned over this period, it
has clearly drawn intense interest during the past 25 years. During this time,
researchers have undertaken detailed analyses of the cognitive processes
involved in person perception, and they have developed complex, comprehen-
sive models in this domain (e.g., Wyer & Srull, 1986). In general, the emphasis
in this research has been on the manner in which people combine and represent
pieces of information; much less is known about how raw social stimuli are
transformed so as to be used in this process. Beginning with Asch (1946),
participants in social cognition experiments are often provided lists of traits
describing a person and are asked to form an impression of that person. But this



sidesteps the issue of how people obtain such information in the first place (e.g.,
Hastie, Park, Weber, 1984; Wyer & Gruenfeld, 1995). This first step may be
crucial. The acquisition of information is an active process that may change the
very nature of the information that is acquired.
Language use is one of the major sources of raw social information; it is the
very stuff out of which impressions are formed. Although nonlinguistic
variables—physical appearance for example (Zebrowitz, 1997)—are clearly
important, it is our interactions with others that are the major sites for forming
impressions of others. Those interactions are largely verbal interactions. Even
when we receive second-hand information about people—someone tells us
something about another person—that process is communicative and can
influence our perceptions, in this case the communicator more than the person
described (e.g., Skowronski et al., 1998).
What specific role, then, does language play in the person-perception
process? Well, at the most basic level, language is a socially meaningful
behavior, meaningful in the sense that there are identity implications for many
aspects of language use. To a certain extent, how we speak can define who we
are. Accent, dialect, linguistic style, and one’s language all serve to indicate
membership in social groups, an identification that can greatly influence the
person-perception process. Not all language variables are mediated by group
identification, however. Lexical content, for example, appears to have direct
effects on perceptions of a speaker’s personality (Berry et al., 1997). Many
extralinguistic variables—speech rate, for example—operate in the same way.
Other linguistic variables are largely relationship based; they reveal the
speaker’s view of the relationship with the interlocutor. Politeness is a good
example. Politeness variability reveals the speaker’s view of her relative status
and the psychological distance between herself and her partner, a view that can
influence how she is perceived by her partner. Other identity-relevant aspects of
language use are derived from the operation of conversational rules, guidelines
for constructing (both the form and content) of one’s conversational
contributions. Deviations from conversational rules—bragging in certain con-
texts, for example, or abruptly changing the conversational topic—can influence
overall evaluations of the speaker. But conversational rules are complex things
and can influence perceptions in other ways as well; reasoning about why a
violation occurred can affect perceptions of speakers on different dimensions as
perceivers attempt to determine why the violation occurred.
These effects are neither simple nor straighforward. Interlocutors are not only
perceiving others, they are also being perceived, and people can alter their
language use so as to achieve various effects. Slight variations in one’s linguistic
behavior can be used to alter the social context of the talk, to defuse a tense
situation with a joke, or to turn a formal situation into an informal one. More
importantly, language use is a major means for managing the impressions we
convey to others. We cannot change our physical appearance (except



cosmetically, of course), but we can and do vary our talk. Thus, a person can
attempt to portray himself as having relatively high status by lowering his level
of politeness and issuing direct commands. Or he may attempt to convey
competence by speaking quickly with a powerful linguistic style and prestigious
language variety, or closeness by speaking fankly and adopting an in-group
dialect, and so on. One can manipulate some conversational rules so as to
mitigate the effects of violating other conversational rules. For example, a
person can gently negotiate the conversational topic so as to be able to provide a
context for a positive self-disclosure, thereby lessening the negative implications
of bragging. Or one can subtly alter one’s linguistic style so as to converge with
the style of one’s interlocutor, a move often resulting in more favorable
impressions of the speaker. As a socially meaningful activity, language is a
resource that people can use to pursue various impression-management
strategies. So, if we want to know how people manage their impressions, and we
really do not understand this very well, than language use is a good place to

Impression management is not a solitary activity, interlocutors are not only
acting, they are also reacting to the behavior, linguistic and otherwise, of others.
In this way language use might be a major source for many interpersonal
expectancy effects. It has been demonstrated, for example, that beliefs about
one’s interaction partner can influence how one behaves toward that person, and
these behavioral effects can alter that person’s behavior (e.g., Snyder, Tanke, &
Berscheid, 1977). But how does this happen? Exactly how does one elicit
behaviors that confirm an expectancy? No doubt subtle aspects of language use
are important here—speaking warmly to elicit warmth, rudely to elicit rudeness.
Or gently bringing up topics for which the other is likely to have a positive (or
negative) contribution. And so on.
Language is both a source and a resource for person perception and
impression management. But it can play a role in these processes in other ways
as well. Specifically, person perception can be affected by interpersonal
processes because we often talk about our perceptions of others, and the act of
talking, as we have seen, can influence our representation of, and memory for,
the topic of that talk. As an interpresonal process, our talking about others can
be affected by a host of linguistic variables such as the nature of our relationship
with the other (Semin, 1998), our beliefs about the recipient’s opinion of the
other person (Higgins & Rholes, 1978), what we presume the other knows about
the target (Slugoski, 1983). And so on.
And last, but not least, person perception might be influenced by the
dimensions that are available to be used in this process. Granted, the evidence is
less clear on this point. But still, there are a myriad of ways in which we might
perceive others, and such choices would seem to be constrained by the words
that are available for doing this (Hoffman et al., 1986). It is very difficult to
perceive others on a dimension without the existence of a lexical item that



captures that difference. To perceive others as finicky, flirtatious, or frugal
requries the existence of these words. Benjamin Whorf may have overstated his
case—language does not fully determine thought—but he did foster an
awareness of the subtle influences that language has on certain aspects of
cognition, with person perception being primary in this regard. The available
lexicon, then, is a framework within which the person-perception process
operates. Similarly, thoughtful impression management may also require some
type of linguistic basis for the planning of an identity that one may wish to

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