In the Beginning: Part 3 of 4

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Stanford professors Daniel McFarland and Dan Jurafsky published “Making the Connection: Bonding in Courtship Situations”, a study on how people develop initial romantic bonds, or “click”, using the arena of speed dating, in May’s American Journal of Sociology. The series “In the Beginning” elaborates the study’s findings.

I took a course on documentation writing in graduate school. Therapists are frequently asked to write reports following psychological testing and for legal and other medical professionals, as well as their own documentation of content during sessions. Our professor emphasized “hedges“: phrases that reduce assertiveness and provide cushion to potential wrong analyses.

Let’s say that a school asks me to assess a child for ADHD. ADHD differs from the common cold, where there are easily-ascertained biological symptoms, such as a sore throat, fever, or consistent sneezing. Keith Conners wrote the most popular ADHD assessment (the aptly-named Conners assessment), which consists of a series of questions about behaviors. Whereas a primary care physician can get objective information about my common cold by looking at the color of my glands or manipulating my breathing patterns and listening for congestion, the Conners relies on subjective information: observations of parents and teachers. Observations can sometimes correctly identify reality. However, bias and mood often affect and distort my observations; if I arrive at school following an anxious discussion with my spouse, I’m more likely to see my students as obnoxious hoodlums.

I might receive high scores from both parents and teachers that support an ADHD diagnosis, but as an ethical researcher, I must view the results of these assessments as subjective. My written documentation needs to match the subjectivity of the assessment: “It seems that this child struggle with focusing. Children in similar situations may have difficulty sitting still. These behaviors might lead to more severe behaviors in the future.” It’s possible that my assessment leads to wrong conclusions; hedging protects me by providing a disclaimer that my evaluation may be incorrect.

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McFarland and Jurafsky discover that quality of interaction, even if it exists in four-minute speed dates, provides a significant indicator of “clicking”, the initiation of attraction. Men who laughed, particularly when accompanied with women’s laughter, proved more successful at clicking. Women who varied their pitch in conversation achieved higher click rates.

blackboard_hedgeThe Stanford professors researched what kind of verbal forms on interaction influenced the clicking process. As they wrote out the scripts for numerous speed daters, they discovered that those who received the fewest clicks from other daters commonly used a similar communication device: hedging.

Hedging several several functions in verbal communication. It can convey politeness and humility; in Southern cultural etiquette, for example, a speaker wants to avoid portraying self as pompous or arrogant, favoring an “aw, shucks” attitude. Hedging can reduce the intensity of a conversation; “Maybe he didn’t really feel like playing,” could be a soothing response to an upset child searching for a neighborhood playmate. Hedging can also protect against a feared emotional response, a vocabulary of walking on eggshells.

McFarland and Jurafsky insinuate that hedging, regardless of the validity of the non-committal statement, was perceived by the receiver in negative ways, although the research failed to assess specifically how hedging comments are perceived in dating situations. Perhaps hedging comments construed a lack of confidence, an unwillingness to state one’s opinion. Perhaps consistent hedging elucidated a generic anxiety in the speaker. To the blogosphere: what messages get conveyed when you’re with someone who uses too many hedging statements?

The Stanford professors discovered that daters clicked with other daters who were visually and conversationally engaged, used a lot of “I” statements, expressed excitement and used assertive tracking statements to validate their stories. Most of them avoided daters who consistently used hedging statements.

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