Do people like us better when we’re distracted?


Seems like it. It’s not that being distracted isn’t off-putting, but when distracted we’re less negative, less complex and more personal in our speech.

We also encourage the other person to talk more.

From James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us:

distracted pairs actually showed slightly higher style matching than the non-distracted pair. Even odder, they tended to report liking each other more. In terms of actual word use, the distracted students were less negative, less complex, and more personal than non-distracted writers.

There have been very few times in my career that I didn’t believe my own results. It just didn’t make sense to me that style matching increases when talking to a multitasker. So I took things into my own hands and called two former students and asked if they would mind participating in a language project. The deal would be that we would have an informal talk on the phone that would be recorded, transcribed, and analyzed. The talk would actually be made up of three five-minute segments, and after each segment, they would complete a brief questionnaire. Both agreed to the rules. What they didn’t know was that on one of the three segments, I would be sitting in my office madly doing arithmetic problems as fast as I could.

The phone calls started and we talked about work, our lives, our mutual friends, and other issues of the day. During the period I was working on the arithmetic problems, I recall thinking, “Wow, I’m really good at this. I’m as socially adept when I’m busy as when I’m not.” Later, when I transcribed the conversations, I was startled to see how differently I spoke while engaged in the arithmetic problems. I stuttered and repeated myself. I deflected any complicated questions and tried to get the other person to talk more. Similar to the participants in Yla’s experiment, I tended to laugh more and used more positive language in general.

Both of my students rated the distraction phases of the conversation as enjoyable as the other parts. In fact, the LSM measures indicated that we matched in our language use during the distraction period at rates as high or higher than during the nondistraction periods. What happened, however, is that both students started speaking to me in the ways I was speaking to them. As I psychologically distanced myself from the conversation, my conversational partners did the same. What intrigues me is that none of us were consciously aware of it. In fact, after the phone calls, I discussed the conversations with both students, asking their perceptions. One said that she was vaguely aware that I was slightly more distracted during the arithmetic problems but said, “You often are distracted in phone calls.” Oooh.

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