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How You Talk About Your Friends Reveals A Lot About Yourself

March 16, 2015

A Dartmouth researcher has determined that the way you talk about your friends can reveal different characteristics about yourself. For example, you might discuss friends you admire and say you are like them, or you could talk about a friend’s negative behavior to position yourself in a better light.

In a study recently published in the journal Symbolic Interaction, professor Janice McCabe, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth, and her colleague Amanda Koontz Anthony from the University of Central Florida explore the role of friendships in defining one’s identity.  They focused their research on adults age 18-25.

“Emerging adults are at a time in their lives when they are meeting new people, experiencing new situations, and exploring different values and beliefs,” says McCabe, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth. “By studying the way they talk about their friends, we are able to better understand how they perceive themselves.”

McCabe and Anthony described three kinds of “friendship talk” displayed by emerging adults.

  • Envisioning self through others: Talking about your friends in a manner that was complimentary and aspirational, therefore taking on those attributes yourself.
  • Betterment distancing: Describing perceived negative characteristics in a friend and expressing a desire to distance or minimize that friendship, showing you are unlike and better than that individual.
  • Situating with networks: Labeling your role within a group of friends or between different groups, which indicates an awareness of being inside or outside the mainstream or a subcultural group.

“We found that people verbally connect with and separate from friends while creating their own desired selves and moral identities,” says McCabe. “In the study, we also suggest that friendship talk strategies may be generic social processes that apply beyond emerging adulthood.”

The research involved a series of interviews with 68 college students at Midwestern university (a fictional name used to preserve privacy). The interviews encouraged the students to talk openly about relationships and conversations centered on friendships, including how people met and what they did together. For this study, the researchers focused on the parts of the conversations about personal interests and goals to learn how identity is shaped through social relationships.

Professor Janice McCabe can be reached directly at Janice.m.mccabe@dartmouth.edu.

Last Updated: 9/9/15