You Know What I Mean? How Latent Semantic Similarity Plays a Role in Understanding

Guest Post by Vivian Ta

As long as humans are able to communicate with each other, misunderstandings among us will continue to happen all the time. It seems like there isn’t anything or anyone that is exempt from this rule: Misunderstandings could happen between you and a stranger, or even between you and someone you’ve known for a very long time.

Misunderstandings can happen to anyone at any age.  The same misunderstandings could even happen repeatedly between the same people! It’s a part of life that we must embrace and continuously work on. And since it happens quite frequently, one can’t help but wonder: What exactly causes these misunderstandings? How can people come to understand each other better?

guy-698784_1280WBA recent study that my colleagues and I published sought to answer this question by investigating the initial conversations of 63 pairs of strangers. We analyzed the content of their conversation from a linguistic standpoint using a measure called Latent Semantic Similarity (LSS), which measures the degree in which the participants achieved a common-ground understanding with each other.

We also took their LSS measure and correlated it with other behavioral measures like how often people looked each other in the eye and how long they laughed together. We found that these new partners achieved higher LSS (i.e., more common-ground understanding) when they talked to each other more, looked at each other more, and acknowledged each other more, both verbally and nonverbally.

People understood each other more when they talked to each other more.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The more you talk about something, the more information you’re giving your listener, which increases the probability that they will understand what you’re saying.  However, it also depends on the number of conversations that you have with the other person within a given interaction.

Let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone you just met at a party. You start talking about a variety of topics including where you went to school, your kids, and your goals for the week. But then, you both run out of things to say, and 60 long and awkward seconds go by before you think of another subject to talk about to pull yourself out of the awkward moment. Even though you talked about several topics, you ended one conversation sequence and then began another one. As our study showed, the more people do this, the less likely they are to get on the same page and understand each other.

People understood each other more when they looked at each other more.

eyes-149670_640Our results also suggested that pairs of people who looked at each other more and for a longer time also had higher LSS scores, reflecting more common-ground understanding.

Looking at someone implies that you’re paying attention to them, whether they are speaking to you or not (although, not always—I’ve been guilty of accidentally staring at someone while thinking about something completely unrelated and not realizing it).

Or, perhaps being cognizant of the fact that the person you’re talking to is also looking at you (and, thus, paying close attention to you) encourages more coherent and intelligible communication.

People understood each other more when they acknowledged each other more, both verbally and nonverbally.

Pairs of people who engaged in more verbal acknowledgements (i.e., saying things like “I see” or “Uh-huh” or “Is that so?” in the context of recognizing their interaction partner’s remarks) and nonverbal acknowledgements (i.e., head nods) also achieved higher LSS scores.

Signaling that understanding had occurred allowed partners to become more in synch with each other during their interaction. That means even if you do understand your interaction partner, it may be a good idea to indicate this, verbally or nonverbally.

In a nutshell, the extent to which interaction partners develop a common-ground understanding develops out of a highly involving interaction in which a lot of verbal information is exchanged between mutually attentive and acknowledging partners.

So, the next time you start a conversation with someone and want to keep any sort of misunderstanding at bay, have these three behaviors in mind in order to facilitate a smooth interaction.


Feature Image: “Two young people demonstrating a lively conversation” by Ananian via Wikimedia Commons –  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped

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