One Friday night, 30 men and 30 women gathered at a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. Their goal was love, or maybe sex, or maybe some combination of the two. They were there for speed dating.
The women sat at separate numbered tables while the men moved down the line, and for two solid hours they did a rotation, making small talk with people they did not know, one after another, in three-minute increments.
I had gone to record the night, which was put on by a company called Professionals in the City, and what struck me was the noise in the room. The sound of words, of people talking over people talking over people talking. It was a roar.
What were these people saying?
And what can we learn from what they are saying?
That is why I called James Pennebaker, a psychologist interested in the secret life of pronouns.
About 20 years ago Pennebaker, who’s at the University of Texas, Austin, got interested in looking more closely at the words that we use. Or rather, he got interested in looking more closely at a certain subset of the words that we use: Pennebaker was interested in function words.
For those of you like me — the grammatically challenged — function words are the smallish words that tie our sentences together.