Audiences differ. Talk to one person and your words are welcomed by a smile and nod of acknowledgment. Speak to another, less winsome listener and your words are confronted by a frown and folded arms. According to Camiel Beukeboom, these different responses systematically alter your use of language. Speak to a positive listener and you’ll likely use more abstractions and subjective impressions, whilst if you talk to a negative listener you’ll probably find yourself sheltering in the security of objective facts and concrete details.
Beukeboom had 57 undergrad students watch an eight minute film about a kiosk owner, and then asked them to take their time and describe the film as fully as possible to two other participants. In actuality, these listeners were research assistants and for half the participants they assumed a positive listening style – smiling, nodding and maintaining an open bodily position – whilst for the other participants they assumed a negative listening style – frowning and unsmiling.
Participants describing the film to positive listeners used more abstractions, describing aspects of the film that can’t be seen, such as a character’s thoughts and emotions, and also included more of their own opinions. Beukeboom said this is because we interpret the smiles and nods of a positive listener as a sign of agreement and understanding, encouraging us to provide a more interpretative account. By contrast, negative listeners provoke in the speaker a more cautious and descriptive thinking style.
“Consider what this means,” Beukeboom said. “By merely smiling or frowning a listener could influence how a speaker reports information and how it is subsequently remembered, and possibly passed on. In, for instance, witness interrogations, job interviews, politics, or psychotherapy, a simple smile or frown could potentially have a large impact.”
Beukeboom, C. (2009). When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a speaker’s language use. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (5), 747-756 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.572