It was around the time when Emily Taffel-Schaper accidentally called her mom "dude" when she realized: She was starting to talk exactly like her now-husband, Fritz Schaper.
"Sometimes I even notice myself calling my clients 'dude,'" says Taffel-Schaper, a 30-year-old who works in public relations in Del Ray Beach, Fla. It works the other way around, too, she explains: Just last Sunday, her thoughts seemed to have momentarily possessed her husband's speech, when he said one of her oft-repeated words on his weekend Internet radio show: "natch."
The two, now married, have been together for 10 years, so clearly something about this talkalike system is working. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that couples who have similar speaking styles might actually be more compatible.
As one of the study authors, Molly Ireland, describes it, these similarities in speech patterns are very subtle; researchers focused on "function words," which are things like personal pronouns, prepositions and articles — things that you can't really catch in a conversation. (Ireland and colleagues used a fancy computer program to analyze the study participants' language.)
"It's not cutesy nicknames," explains Ireland, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas. "They're parts of speech most people haven't thought about since grade school."
But because it's very hard to get people excited about things like personal pronouns, prepositions and articles, Ireland uses this example to explain her findings: "I noticed after reading a really engrossing book that you feel like a different person momentarily," she says. "And (afterward), when I would write an e-mail or have a conversation, I kind of felt possessed by the author. I thought that was worth studying — that maybe thinking styles could be contagious, could be transmitted through language."
In one experiment, 40 men and 40 women (whose average age was 19) volunteered to take part in a speed-dating study. The volunteers went on as many as 12 four-minute speed dates, each of which was audio- and video-recorded. Researchers then transcribed the conversations, and ran it through a computerized text analysis program, which calculates the number of those "function words." Within a day after the speed dates, the participants were asked whether they would want to see each of their dates again — and those pairs who scored higher in the language-matching analysis were more likely to say they wanted to see each other again.
"What’s going on here is that these grammatical things that are verbal are probably connected to larger issues that are important," says Gerald Goodman, a UCLA clinical psychologist who focuses on the role of language in shaping a romantic relationship.
He explains that others perceive the way we craft our sentences to be tied to things like perception of intelligence, or even how open or transparent we are with our emotions. Goodman continues, "grammatical structure is important for close connection in romantic relationships — no one will argue with that."
Next, Ireland is considering looking into whether the similar use of function words can be developed during the relationship, or if it's more often something that you shared all along. "My personal thought is it’s kind of both," she says. "If you’re already using the same function words as your partner then you already maybe have the same psychological trait. So that might make it a little easier to communicate."
Schaper, the Florida dude who finds himself accidentally saying "natch," says that it's just something that happens the longer you're with someone. Even their corporate-speak sneaks its way into your shared vernacular. "She has work phrases, like, 'I have so much on my plate!'" he says. "And I find myself using that, too, which is not a term I'd ever say."
Both say their shared style of communication has definitely helped them communicate better. "I really don’t have to say anything," Taffel-Schaper says. "We just know what the other person’s going to say."
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter @melissadahl.