Language important in online dating

On the dating site Tinder, photos take a prominent place. To read a text about the person in the photo you have to scroll down. But before you do that, you may have already swiped the photo left — Tinder slang for: Not interested. Nevertheless, research by Tess van der Zanden at Tilburg University shows that the role of text on dating sites should not be underestimated.

For example, an experiment in which she measured eye movements showed that people are not just fixated on the photo of a dating profile. The participants in the experiment usually looked at the photo first, but also always looked at the text afterwards. Moreover, their gaze lingered longer on the text, because processing text simply takes more time for our brains. Language errors lingered even longer.

“Because there is so little space for text, a language error is all the more noticeable,” says Van der Zanden, who is a communication scientist at Tilburg University. For her dissertation, she analyzed 12,000 dating profiles, and had a selection of them and a number of fictitious profiles reviewed by users. “People who make more language mistakes are judged to be less intelligent and therefore seen as less attractive.”

Typing errors indicate carelessness

The profiles that Van der Zanden analyzed came from a dating site that has since been shut down due to too much competition. The audience that visited this dating site was very diverse, says the PhD student. In the texts she found all kinds of language errors: typos, grammatical and spelling errors, space and punctuation errors.

“A third of our test subjects did not recognize them as errors,” says Van der Zanden. “Probably because they make those mistakes themselves. Space and punctuation errors are especially common.” The people who did notice the errors, however, experienced them as very disturbing. “This group bore the entire negative effect,” said the researcher. It should be noted, however, that the raters had an average age of around fifty years; perhaps younger people judge more leniently.

You can’t compensate with your photo

In a follow-up study, Van der Zanden looked at whether the type of error is also associated with certain personality traits. That was the case. For example, people generally associate typos with carelessness, and grammatical and spelling errors with lower intelligence. Both characteristics have a negative effect on attractiveness. “Women in particular were critical of carelessness,” explains the researcher. “The women in our study were in any case much more critical than the men. On average, they always gave lower scores on attractiveness.”

The study made a distinction between physical, social and romantic attractiveness. The language errors mainly affected a person’s social attractiveness. When the subjects were instructed to rate someone on physical attractiveness, the photo generally made the difference. But the moment a photo is found to be ‘on average attractive’, the language errors suddenly weigh more heavily. Van der Zanden: “So people do look at the text and really use it to form an impression. If you create a dating profile, you can’t compensate for bad text with your photo.”

Women were very critical of sloppiness mistakes.

Metaphorical language works well

But language use can also show a positive effect: profiles with an original text score higher on attractiveness, the research shows. In this case, members of the 55+ Match dating site were asked to rate profiles for originality. In addition, they were asked questions about the profile owner’s personality traits. This showed that they more often attributed original lyrics to intelligent and funny people. “But you shouldn’t go too far,” warns the researcher. “People find something original if it’s innovative, but still appropriate within the context.”

Originality appeared to be mainly related to the provision of personal information. “Everyone likes to cook and travel. You stand out positively when you say what your favorite holiday country is, or what your specialty is in the kitchen.” The use of metaphors also had a positive effect on originality. “Sometimes it was a single sentence like ‘let’s see if there’s chemistry’, other times a metaphor was extended throughout a text by someone who compared himself to a dog. So it’s a fairly broad category, but it makes your text just a bit more original.”

Tips when creating a dating profile:

1. Check your text for language errors (or have someone else look at it): spelling errors, grammatical errors, typos, but also space errors and punctuation errors.
2. Be original: provide personal information (not: I like to travel, but: My favorite holiday destination is Iceland) and use metaphors (figurative language).
3. Be careful with originality: stick to conventions, don’t get too excited.

From an evolutionary point of view, several functions are attributed to language: language to communicate, language to think or language to groom (as a social binding agent) or as a peacock’s tail: to attract a mate.

Language as peacock tail

The conclusion that creative language makes someone more attractive is also in line with what linguist Marc van Oostendorp of Radboud University Nijmegen once wrote about the function of language. He is a supporter of the theory that, from an evolutionary point of view, language has the same function as a peacock’s tail: you can impress a potential partner with creative language. Van Oostendorp explains: “That does not mean that people will consciously express themselves in a flowery way, but unconsciously it does play a role in the choice of partner.” Apart from that, he believes that this outcome also corresponds to what was found earlier for job applications: here too, it applies that you are not allowed to make language mistakes and that you have a better chance if you use more creative language.

Does your language actually affect you the same way you actually start dating? According to Van der Zanden, your language use in live situations is slightly less under the magnifying glass. “When you see someone in person, you get a lot more non-verbal information, for example through body language or how someone is dressed. You cannot make typos and spelling mistakes in spoken language. You often hear that people turn off because of someone’s accent, you generally don’t suffer from that with a dating profile.”

Van Oostendorp agrees. He thinks that language mistakes during a live meeting are less noticeable: “When you’re having a drink with someone, you are probably a little less focused on whether someone uses ‘greater than’ or ‘greater than’. Nine times out of ten you don’t even hear it. But whether someone can have a nice, sparkling conversation plays a role. And what certainly plays a role is the way you mirror the other. Research shows that people like others more if they resemble them in terms of language. A dating coach will certainly recommend that.”

How attractive do you find the person behind this profile?

This was one of the dating profiles that came up in the survey. How do you rate this profile?

Source: Kennislink by

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