Profiling Your Online Matches

It's not what you say, but how you say it — especially in an online dating profile. Find out here what pronouns, punctuation marks and common phrases reveal about someone's personality.

By Susan Johnston

hat can you really learn from the language in a potential date's profile? A lot, as it turns out. Your date's word choice, punctuation, even the frequency of pronouns used could offer valuable insights into his or her personality, according to James Pennebaker, a psychologist at University Texas at Austin and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. In fact,
The same words coming out of your mouth or my mouth could mean totally different things.
Pennebaker analyzed how people converse during speed-dating sessions and found that when two people use the same kinds of words at similar rates while speaking, they're more likely to go on a subsequent date. (If you want to compare the language in your profile to that of a potential match, Pennebaker's website has a tool for that.)

Even more importantly, though, analyzing the language in a profile could help you avoid the kinds of people that Mary Ellen O'Toole, co-author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us, met and caught while working in her former role as a profiler for the FBI. "Linguistically, people can say whatever they want, just like they can write anything in a threat," explains O'Toole. "The same words coming out of your mouth or my mouth could mean totally different things, so it's important to be aware of how to read a personality."

Here, O'Toole and Pennebaker offer their tips on decoding common phrases — and how this information could help you improve your own online dating profile.

Profile clue #1: Negative sentence construction
Examples: "I'm not into playing games," "I don't expect you to look like a supermodel."

What it actually means: When someone insists that he or she doesn't play games, "it's interesting that the person would be starting off with a negation," Pennebaker notes. "It tells me that, first of all, this person tends to be inhibited and somewhat negative. I guess the real question would be: 'what are you into?'" In some cases, it implies that the person may have been accused of playing games in the past and has become overly defensive about it.

As for the "supermodel" comment, it could indicate that the person who wrote it is overly concerned about appearance and secretly does want to date a Gisele or Tyson lookalike. According to O'Toole, here are two possible interpretations of this phrase: "if he had his choice, he would prefer a supermodel" or "the relationship will be lacking because he is defaulting to second or third choice." Do you find yourself using negatives — such as "I'm not" or "I don't" — in your own profile? Flip it around! If the "supermodel" comment actually means that you're attracted to friendly guy- or girl-next-door types with a fun personality, say that instead.

Profile clue #2: Using lots of pronouns
Example: "My roommate is a movie buff, so she suggested we have a John Hughes marathon. She's seen The Breakfast Club like 20 times!"

What it actually means: By analyzing countless letters, conversations, and other materials, Pennebaker has discovered that "if someone is really interested in people, he or she will use pronouns and make references to other people." (Quick refresher: pronouns are words like "it," "he," or "she" that replace a noun.) On the other hand, if someone uses lots of bigger words with only a few pronouns, it could be a sign that he or she is more formal. Similarly,
It's really important to know your own personality before you size up somebody else's.
when someone tells stories in an online dating profile, it often signifies that he or she is a narrative thinker.

Profile clue #3: Punctuation marks
Examples: "I'm addicted to chocolate-covered pretzels!!" or "I love to travel; in fact, last year, I backpacked through South America."

What it actually means: You may not give a second thought to the punctuation marks you (or your potential dates) use, but Pennebaker has thought a lot about what it says about someone's personality. "A person who uses lots of exclamation points, as a general rule, is a bit overenthusiastic — almost childlike — and sometimes, perhaps a bit literal," he explains. "If someone uses semicolons, it's signaling that this person is educated (assuming they're used correctly). Dashes often signify being underhandedly or subtly expressive." Who'd have thought that a single character could say so much?

Profile clue #4: "Word salad"
Example: "I spend most weekends relaxing… and then all these monkeys started attacking, so I had to fight them off with chopsticks!"

What it actually means: Occasionally, someone's profile or online messages seem to jump around from one topic to another without making any logical thought transitions. O'Toole calls this phenomenon "word salad." She says that "it's like you and I are talking when all of a sudden, I start talking about the moon." As she cautions, "it could be evidence that there's a much more serious issue going on" with someone who writes this way.

Still, O'Toole says that "people are not linear, so human behaviors are complicated." If you're too cautious, you run the risk of screening out potentially good matches before giving them a chance. After all, one off-putting comment could simply be a sign of nervousness, so it's the overall linguistic patterns that matter.

You should also be aware of your own tendencies to lose your train of thought and how that might impact your impressions of other people. "If you tend to be opinionated or jump to conclusions, you're taking your personality with you," explains O'Toole. "Your assessment tool is vetted through your personality. It's really important to know your own personality before you size up somebody else's." And remember, just as you're sizing up someone else's profile, other people could be checking out yours and drawing inaccurate conclusions.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who has contributed to such publications as The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, Self, and online at
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