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What Your Facebook Updates Say About Your Age

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For a long time, psychologists have studied how the words people use correlate with characteristics like gender, personality type, and age. They would answer questions like “do older people use more positive words than younger people?” by making lists of words they deemed positive or negative and then counting them up in language samples of people in different age groups. Now researchers have come up with a new way of looking at the relationship between language and social characteristics where the differences between groups are suggested by the data itself, and not by the researchers. Instead of asking whether characteristics (young, old) correlate with words (positive, negative), it asks which words best distinguish these groups from each other?

The technique allows you to find differences you may not have even thought of. But its sophisticated statistical algorithms require massive quantities of text. A 2013 study by H. Andrew Schwartz and colleagues at the Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge analyzed 15.4 million Facebook messages from 75,000 volunteers who provided information about their gender, age, and personality type (in the form of a standard personality test). As might be expected from Facebook messages, some of the researchers' findings below are NSFW.

Among the insights uncovered were a strong correlation between introversion and Japanese media (“anime,” “manga,” “pokemon”) and a stronger tendency for males to say “my girlfriend/wife” than for females to say “my boyfriend/husband.”

With respect to age, the major concerns of each life stage, unsurprisingly, are represented in the words people use at those stages. These word clouds show the words used in four different age groups. Unlike most word clouds, the size of the word doesn’t indicate how frequent that word is. Rather, it shows how well that word distinguishes that age group from the others. So four life stages might be summed up like this:

13-18: emoticons, school, homework
19-22: profanity, campus, semester, 21st
23-29: at_work, days_off, office, beer, wedding
30-65: family and friends, daughter, son, kids, repost, copy_and

High school kids are talking about school, college kids are swearing and talking about their 21st birthdays, young adults are talking about work, weddings, and beer, and older adults are talking about family and forwarding those “please repost” and “copy and paste” Facebook messages.

Via study

Other graphs tell different types of stories. These plots of the frequency of certain types of words show how negativity seems to decrease with age while positivity increases (confirming previous research on the age-related positivity effect) and how people use “I” less and “we” more as they get older (indicating an increasing focus on social relationships).

Via study

You can explore the age data yourself at the World Well-Being Project site where you can generate a plot for words of your choice. Here are a few that I tried:

For baby, cat, and dog

Looks like pets get a bum deal during the baby-making years, but they get the attention back once the kids are older.

For who, what, where, when, why, and how

Most question words cluster together with big dip in the 20’s. But “why” and “where” break the pattern. Do twentysomethings think they know everything except why? Do people worry more about the facts and less about the reasons as they get older? Why do they stop asking why? Do teenagers not care about where things are happening until they start driving? Are older people forgetting where they left their car keys?

For sucks vs. bummer

The use of anything with a touch of profanity goes down with age, but slang doesn’t necessarily decrease. I thought “bummer” was a young person’s word. Guess I’m showing my age.

For pics vs. pix

Pics at 13, pix at 20, pics at 30, pix at 50. Artefact of people not really settling on one or the other? Or something else? I prefer pics, but it looks like my preferences may soon change.

See Also...

10 Facebook Status Updates Gone Horribly Wrong

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Live Smarter
Why You Should Drop 'Kind of' and 'Sort of' From Your Vocabulary
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How many times have you heard something like this before: “I sort of agree” or “I just kind of wish you had asked me before making that decision.” People tend to couch phrases in qualifying language to protect someone else’s feelings or to protect themselves when they say something that’s potentially inaccurate or makes them feel vulnerable. But no matter how safe and comfortable those words make you feel, they only end up confusing your listeners and hurting your reputation.

Fast Company includes “kind of” and “sort of” on their list of expressions that make you sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about. When you preface a sentence with those words, you’re immediately letting your audience know that they shouldn’t fully trust whatever comes next. Not only does this discredit you as a leader or a confidant, it obscures any feedback or request you were hoping to convey.

“Sort of” and “kind of” aren’t the only crutches insecure speakers love to lean on. Other offenders on Fast Company’s list include “maybe,” “possibly,” “potentially,” and “I’m not sure, but … ”

If qualifiers make poor security blankets, what strategies should speakers use to communicate with confidence? One way is to replace filler words and passive past-tense language with strong action verbs. That way your message will come across clearly and better persuade whomever you're speaking to. If the thought of talking this way terrifies you, try some preemptive confidence exercises before going into your next big meeting or confronting a friend or partner. Working out, practicing power poses, and even checking your own Facebook wall are all ways you can boost your self-image in a pinch.

[h/t Fast Company]


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