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When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a speaker's language use

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Abstract

Based on conversation research and work showing that affective cues help to tune information processing to situational demands, it was hypothesized that affective expressions of listeners would influence how speakers represent communicated information in language. Participants were asked to orally communicate an event presented in a film clip to two other participants. These other participants were actually confederates who either adopted a positive or negative nonverbal expression during the story of the participant. Results show that participants talking to smiling listeners used more interpretive, abstract language, whereas participants talking to frowning listeners stayed with the concrete and descriptive facts. These effects of external affective cues on language abstraction were not mediated by the speaker's mood. Implications for interpersonal conversation are discussed. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
When words feel right: How affective expressions of listeners change a
speaker’s language use
CAMIEL J. BEUKEBOOM*
VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Abstract
Based on conversation research and work showing that affective cues help to tune information processing to situational
demands, it was hypothesized that affective expressions of listeners would influence how speakers represent communicated
information in language. Participants were asked to orally communicate an event presented in a film clip to two other
participants. These other participants were actually confederates who either adopted a positive or negative nonverbal
expression during the story of the participant. Results show that participants talking to smiling listeners used more
interpretive, abstract language, whereas participants talking to frowning listeners stayed with the concrete and descriptive
facts. These effects of external affective cues on language abstraction were not mediated by the speaker’s mood.
Implications for interpersonal conversation are discussed. Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
The notion that speakers are responsive to the reactions of their conversation partners seems generally accepted. Models
about the dynamics of face-to-face conversations view conversation as a joint activity, a duet, in which conversation
partners collaborate to create mutual understanding. Speakers constantly monitor their conversation partner and change
their utterances depending on the listeners’ replies and feedback (Clark & Brennan, 1991; Clark & Krych, 2004; Clark &
Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986). Even in asymmetrical dialogues, when a listener has no speaking role, the ‘‘mere listener’’ exerts an
effect on the way a speaker tells a narrative (Bavelas, Coates, & Johnson, 2000; Kraut, Lewis, & Swezey, 1982). How
exactly speakers adapt their language to listeners’ reactions, however, remains quite unclear.
One important factor that may exert an effect on a speaker’s language use is the nonverbal affective expression of
conversation partners, perceivable in facial expression, bodily posture, and speech intonation. Facial expressions of
listeners, for instance, convey positive or negative emotional reactions to what is said and can simultaneously function as
conversational signals that regulate the structure of talk (Brunner, 1979; Ekman, 1997). It seems highly plausible that the
affective expression of a conversation partner has an influence on what you say. Who remains unaffected when their
audience frowns upon them, or instead, positively smiles at everything they say? Accordingly, the importance of studying
affective influences on interpersonal communication and language use has often been stressed (Forgas, 1999; Hatfield,
Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Jones & LeBaron, 2002). Yet, to date, research conducted on this topic has been surprisingly
scarce, despite the importance of conversation in nearly every aspect of human life, and the consequences that subtle
variations in language use can have (Krauss & Fussell, 1996).
In the present research, I focus on the effects of listeners’ affective expression on a speaker’s language use. Specifically,
I investigated whether speakers, when talking to either a smiling or a frowning audience, would tune to a different level of
abstraction when representing information in language. Before detailing the present research, I will describe two distinct
areas of literature that, even though they are rarely considered in concert, provide complementing support for the
hypothesis that nonverbal affective expressions of listeners have an effect on a speaker’s language use, and in particular on
language abstraction.
European Journal of Social Psychology
Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
Published online 13 September 2008 in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.572
*Correspondence to: Dr Camiel J. Beukeboom, Department of Communication Science, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV
Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail: cj.beukeboom@fsw.vu.nl
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Received 15 May 2008
Accepted 8 August 2008
AFFECTIVE EXPRESSIONS AS SIGNALS ABOUT ACCEPTANCE AND UNDERSTANDING
A first argument for this hypothesis follows from the assumption that affective expressions of listeners can inform speakers
about the level of acceptance and understanding of what is said. Facial expressions of a listener (e.g., a smile or a frown),
for instance, signal the listener’s personal response to what a speaker has just said. This might mean agreement or
disagreement, amusement, or any other reaction. Simultaneously, a personal reaction implies understanding (or lack of it)
and involvement in the conversation (Brunner, 1979). Positive affective expressions of a listener (e.g., a smile) are most
likely perceived by speakers as signs of acceptance and understanding, whereas negative expressions (e.g., a frown) will be
perceived as signs of rejection or misunderstanding. A vast amount of research has demonstrated that such signals (i.e.,
back-channel responses) play a crucial role in conversations. Speakers rely on this feedback to efficiently get ideas and
information across and, if necessary, repair or adjust their utterances to maintain common ground with their audience
(Clark & Brennan, 1991; Krauss, Garlock, Bricker, & McMahon, 1977; Kraut et al., 1982). Aside from providing feedback
on specific utterances, a listener’s general affective expression in bodily posture (e.g., leaning forward vs. backward) and
facial expression presumably also communicates whether a listener has a general accepting, agreeing attitude or a general
critical, disagreeing attitude.
Level of abstraction appears to be an aspect of language that is particularly sensitive to signals about the (expected)
amount of understanding and acceptance. When conversation partners take information as mutually accepted and
understood they can be less precise, and the level of interpretation (i.e., abstraction) increases. Research on reference
(Isaacs & Clark, 1987; Krauss & Fussell, 1991) provides indirect evidence for this idea. In the classic paradigm studying
reference, participants are required to describe nonsense figures to an addressee. Typically, it is demonstrated that when
perceived common ground with the addressee increases, the figures are described in a more interpretive fashion. That is,
more figuratively, in terms of what they are like (e.g., ‘‘like a spider,’ ‘‘Picasso nude’’). Such more interpretive
descriptions are only effective when the conversation partners share an interpretive framework, and have reached
agreement and mutual understanding. When mutual understanding, or common ground, with the addressee is low,
however, the figures are described in a descriptive, analytic, or literal fashion, in terms of their geometric elements (e.g.,
lines, squares). This is functional because such descriptive, concrete messages can be understood without mutual
agreement about how to interpret a stimulus figure (Fussell & Krauss, 1989; Krauss & Weinheimer, 1966).
In addition, work on language abstraction suggests that under conditions in which information is taken for granted and
processed in an uncritical manner, a tendency toward abstraction is encouraged. When the validity of information (e.g.,
Bob is dishonest) is challenged, however, for instance by questions such as Why did you say that? or What do you mean?,
the likely nature of defence is to provide concrete evidence and refer to a description of an event (e.g., He lied to me;
Fiedler, Semin, & Bolten, 1989; Semin & Fiedler, 1988).
Thus, when positive affective expressions of listeners are perceived as signals of acceptance and understanding, they
should induce an increase in abstraction of a speaker’s message, whereas negative affective expressions (perceived as
signals of rejection, criticism, or misunderstanding) should decrease abstraction.
AFFECTIVE EXPRESSIONS AND COGNITIVE PROCESSING STYLES
Research on the informative function of affective cues complements the above in suggesting that listeners’ affective
expressions should change language abstraction. The affect-as-information account argues that both internal affective cues
(i.e., mood states; Schwarz, 2002; Schwarz & Clore, 1996) as well as external affective cues (e.g., expressions of others;
Soldat & Sinclair, 2001) play an important role in cognitive tuning and regulating information processing styles. In
general, individuals who experience or perceive positive affective cues tend to think about information in a global and
abstract way, whereas individuals who experience and perceive negative affective cues tune to thinking at a more specific,
concrete level. For instance, individuals in a positive, compared to negative mood, have been shown to rely more on
general knowledge structures such as stereotypes, and general behavioral scripts (Bless, 2000); to use broader and more
inclusive categories when sorting exemplars into categories (Isen & Daubman, 1984); to process visual stimuli more
globally (Gasper & Clore, 2002); and prefer to hear more global trait, rather than specific behavioral information (Isbell,
Burns, & Haar, 2005).
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/ejsp
748 Camiel J. Beukeboom
External affective cues, like the positive or negative facial expressions of a conversation partner, have a similar effect on
cognitive processing styles. For instance, speakers talking to a smiling audience are found to process the communicated
information in a global manner, whereas speakers talking to a frowning audience tune to analytic processing (Soldat &
Sinclair, 2001, study 2). Moreover, affective expressions of a speaker have been shown to induce the same changes in the
processing style of message recipients (Ottati, Terkildsen, & Hubbart, 1997).
The affect-as-information-account (Schwarz, 2002; Schwarz & Clore, 1996) and cognitive-tuning-accounts (Bless &
Fiedler, 1995) argue that these effects are highly adaptive. Positive affective cues signal that the present situation is benign,
and therefore a global and superficial processing style is sufficient to deal with the situation and the task at hand. Negative
affective cues, in contrast, signal that the situation is difficult or problematic, and therefore requires attention to detail.
Consequently, negative cues induce a focus on specifics, and a careful and analytic processing style. Thus, affective cues
ensure that our cognitive processes are responsive and ‘‘tuned’’ to the present situational requirements (Clore, Gasper, &
Garvin, 2001; Clore, Wyer, Dienes, Gasper, Gohm, & Isbell, 2001; Schwarz & Skurnik, 2003).
The link to the present research question lies in the fact that the different processing styles induced by experienced or
perceived affective cues are likely to come about in language use. Previous studies demonstrated that processing styles
induced by internal affective cues (i.e., mood) are reflected in language abstraction in written communications
(Beukeboom & De Jong, 2008; Beukeboom & Semin, 2005, 2006). When people are in a negative mood they tend to use
more concrete predica tes (e.g., descriptive verbs) to describe an event. The use of these concrete descriptive verbs reflects a
careful and analytic processing style, since these words retain more of the contextual detail (e.g., ‘‘Jack is talking to Sue’’).
In contrast, when people are in a positive mood and asked to describe the same situation, their representation features
relatively more abstract and interpretive predicates (e.g., adjectives). The use of these abstract and interpretive words (e.g.,
‘‘Jack is persuasive’’) reflects a global and general processing style, since these words decontextualize the event and
convey a subjective interpretation of the event (Semin & Fiedler, 1988, 1991). Since listeners’ affective expressions induce
similar, mood-like changes in the way in which a speaker cognitively processes communicated information (Soldat &
Sinclair, 2001), these external affective cues should also result in changes in language abstraction.
LISTENERS’ AFFECTIVE EXPRESSION AND LANGUAGE ABSTRACTION
Both lines of reasoning described above, suggest that speakers implicitly rely on listeners’ affective expressions to assess
how they are required to deal with the information they are formulating. Positive affective expressions of listeners are
likely to be perceived by a speaker as signals of acceptance and understanding of what is said, and can simultaneously
induce a global processing style. Hence, when a story is told to a listener who responds positively (e.g., by smiling), the
speaker is likely to represent the information in an interpretive way, reflected in an increased use of abstract predicates.
This is adaptive, because speakers now tune to interpretive thinking and communicating when they feel that the situation
allows for it, when listeners signal acceptance and understanding by means of positive affective expressions.
When listeners express negative feelings, however (e.g., by frowning), this is most likely perceived as a signal of
rejection or misunderstanding. In that case, a speaker is likely to process and formulate information more carefully and
analytically, which is reflected in concrete, descriptive language. By using concrete language people stick to the
descriptive facts, which is a more careful way of formulating information. This style is called for in difficult conversational
situations.
The main goal of the present research is to investigate whether the proposed effect indeed occurs and to inspire further
research into the underlying mechanism. However, one obvious and plausible mediating mechanism is tested, namely
whether possible effects of listeners’ affective expressions on a speaker’s language use are mediated by the speaker’s
mood. Besides an effect of positive and negative affective expressions of listeners, one can expect an effect of the speaker’s
own mood on his or her language use (Beukeboom & Semin, 2006). Moreover, expressions of listeners may induce a
congruent mood state in the speaker (i.e., mood contagion, Neumann & Strack, 2000). Hence, effects of affective
expressions of listeners on a speaker’s language use might be mediated by the speaker’s mood. The previously discussed
work, however (Ottati et al., 1997; Soldat & Sinclair, 2001), found that external affective cues exert a direct effect on
information processing, without affecting mood. The present study allowed me to test how external affective cues
(listeners’ affective expressions) influence language use in face-to-face communication and additionally investigate
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/ejsp
Affective expression of listeners and language use 749
effects of internal affective cues (speaker’s mood). Participants were shown a neutral film clip, after which they
were unexpectedly asked to communicate the content of this film clip to two other participants. These other participants
were actually confederates who either adopted a positive or negative affective expression during the story of the
participant. The mean level of abstraction of the language used to tell the story was examined.
METHOD
Participants and Design
Fifty-seven undergraduates at the VU University Amsterdam (35 women, 22 men, mean age 22 years) participated and
were paid s4. They were randomly assigned to one of two between participants listeners-expression conditions
(positive expression vs. negative expression).
1
The main dependent variable was language abstraction as defined by
the Linguistic Category Model (LCM; Semin & Fiedler, 1988).
Procedure
When participants arrived in the lab a first experimenter told them that two other participants had already started. They
were led into a room where the other participants (our two confederates) were working on a computer. A second
experimenter seated them behind a third computer, which was separated from the other participants by screens. Further
instructions were presented on the computer screen. Next, participants watched the target film clip (wearing headphones)
on the computer screen. It was not revealed that they would have to describe it later on. The film clip (duration
8.21 minutes) was a neutral film about a Belgian owner of a small kiosk, interacting with customers and the paper boy. The
clip contained little conversation, to prevent literal descriptions of the spoken words.
After the film clip, a brief mood check was included in which participants reported the extent to which they experienced
‘‘positive feelings’’ and ‘‘negative feelings’’ at this moment. They answered on two 10-point scales ranging from 0 ¼not
at all to 9 ¼very much (mood measure 1, Cronbach’s a¼.63).
Next, participants read on the computer screen that this was ‘‘a study on communication in which all sorts of
information is passed on.’’ It was explained that they were now supposed to take a seat at the table in this room, and
communicate the events from the film clip to the other two participants present. These other participants, they read, had not
seen the film clip, and were at this moment instructed to listen to the story of the film clip. All three of them would answer
some questions on the computer after the story was told. It was stressed that they could tell the story in any way they liked,
that there was no right or wrong way to do this, and that they should take the time for it. When participant and confederates
signaled that they were ready, the experimenter seated the participant in a chair in the same room at a low coffee table, and
the confederates in chairs opposite to the participant. The experimenter then asked all three of them to shortly introduce
themselves. After the experimenter had briefly repeated instructions, the participant started talking about the film.
From the point where they were seated opposite the participant, the confederates, depending on condition, both adopted
either a nonverbal positive or negative affective expression in their general appearance as well as in response to what the
participant was saying. To prevent possible sex effects one confederate was male and one female. They were trained to
adopt a positive expression by smiling, nodding, returning smiles of the participant and maintaining an open bodily
position. Or a negative affective expression, by adopting a serious, frowning facial expression, a closed bodily position,
and not returning smiles of the participant. In both conditions they faced the participant and did not verbally respond to the
story.
The stories participants told were recorded by a hidden camera and microphone, controlled from an adjacent room.
During the participants’ stories the experimenter sat behind a screen. When the participant indicated that he or she had
nothing else to say, the experimenter returned and asked all three to return to their computer to answer some questions.
1
Although a neutral baseline condition is normally useful to detect the direction of an effect, in this case it is difficult to define what neutral means.
Operationalizing the absence of listeners’ expression would results in an unnatural situation. Therefore, it was decided not to include a neutral condition,
and to focus on the relative difference between positive and negative expressions.
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/ejsp
750 Camiel J. Beukeboom
Participants were first asked to report their current mood (mood measure 2, Cronbach’s a¼.82). This measure was
identical to mood measure 1 complemented with the items ‘‘cheerful’’ and ‘‘sad.’ The two items of mood measure 2 that
were identical to mood measure 1 were used to compute a mood change score by subtracting mood measure 1 from the
two-item mood measure 2. Next, participants answered questions about how they described the film on seven-point scales
ranging from 1 ¼not at all to 7 ¼very much. Some of these items were meant to tap in to an abstract, interpretive style:
‘‘To what extent did you describe what the people in the film are like as a person?’’, ‘‘How lively did you describe the
events?’’, ‘‘To what extent did you add things that were not directly visible in the film?’’. Other items were meant to tap in
to a concrete, descriptive style: ‘‘To what extent did you carefully describe how the event occurred?’’, ‘‘To what extent
does your description contain details of the events?’’, ‘‘To what extent did you objectively describe what happened in the
film?’’.
As a manipulation check, participants were asked about their impression of the feelings of the other two participants
(perceived feelings, Cronbach’s a¼.92). They indicated, on 10-point scales ranging from 0 ¼not at all to 9 ¼very much,
the extent to which they thought they experienced: positive feelings, negative feelings; and whether they were cheerful,
sad, happy, angry, worried, bored, relaxed, grumpy, interested, pleased, annoyed.
Finally, a suspicion check was included. Only six participants reported doubts (in hindsight) about whether the other
participants were indeed real participants. None of the participants reported awareness about being filmed, or of the real
purpose of the study. Next, they were led out of the room where they were debriefed, thanked and paid by experimenter 1.
Dependent Variables
To analyze language use, the recordings of participants’ spoken stories were fully and literally typed out. The transcribed
texts were subsequently divided into sections to be coded for language abstraction. Only text about the content of the film
was coded. Remarks about participants own experience, or fillers (e.g. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ ‘‘I forgot about that’’) or remarks to
indicate the beginning or end of their story (e.g., ‘‘Well, the film I just watched ...,’’ ‘‘that’s what I remember’’) were
skipped.
The coding was done by two judges separately and blind to experimental condition (intercoder agreement, r(54) ¼.88)
according to Semin and Fiedler’s (1988, 1991) LCM. Each verb and adjective in the stories was scored as follows:
descriptive-action verbs ¼1, interpretive-action verbs/state-action verbs ¼2, state-verbs ¼3, adjectives ¼4. On the basis
of these scores, the mean level of abstraction was computed for each story separately by adding the different scores and
dividing them by their number. The mean level of abstraction could thus vary between 1 (concrete) and 4 (abstract; Semin
& Fiedler, 1989), and thus provides an index of how concrete or abstract a description is. To reach a final coding, the judges
discussed the scores on which they disagreed, and a third judge checked all coding.
Additionally, the affective expression of participants during story telling were coded. Two judges separately watched
the film recordings of participants, and for each 10 seconds of story telling, gave a score for the speakers expression on a
scale ranging from 1 ¼negative, 3 ¼neutral, 5 ¼positive. The mean of all the scores of the two judges (intercoder
agreement, r(54) ¼.78) was used as the final score for participants affective expression.
RESULTS
Three cases were excluded from analyses because they provided a single sentence event description or a story that was not
about the content of the film, leaving 54 cases. Participant sex had no significant role in the reported data and is therefore
not considered here.
Perceived, Experienced, and Expressed Affect
To analyze whether the listener expression manipulation indeed resulted in differences in perceived feelings, the perceived
feelings scale was subjected to an independent t-test. Participants in the positive expression condition reported that the two
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/ejsp
Affective expression of listeners and language use 751
listeners experienced more positive feelings (M¼6.32; SD ¼0.93) compared to the negative expression condition
(M¼4.59; SD ¼1.02), t(52) ¼6.52, p<.001, d¼1.81, suggesting that the manipulation was successful.
In addition, the affective expression of the listeners affected participants’ own affective expression and mood.
Participants own expression during story telling was rated as more positive in the positive expression condition (M¼3.54;
SD ¼0.76) compared to the negative expression condition (M¼3.07; SD ¼0.71), t(52) ¼2.35, p<.025, d¼0.65. Also,
after story telling (measure 2), participants reported a more positive mood in the positive expression condition (M¼5.91;
SD ¼0.69), compared to the negative expression condition (M¼4.99; SD ¼1.57), t(52) ¼2.77, p<.01, d¼0.77. Before
participants started telling their story no differences in mood were observed between the positive (M¼4.67; SD ¼1.63)
and negative expression condition (M¼4.24; SD ¼1.48; measure 1; t<1.1, ns).
Moreover, perceived feelings was significantly related to participants expression, r(54) ¼.27, p<.05, reported mood in
measure 2, r(54) ¼.58, p<.001, and mood change, r(54) ¼.30, p<.05. These findings indicate that the expressions of
listeners elicited a congruent expression and mood in participants.
Language Use
To test the main hypothesis that the expression of listeners induces differences in language use, I analyzed the obtained
linguistic variables. First note that no effects were observed of expression condition on the number of words used (overall
M¼323, SD ¼147, t<1.3) or the time taken to tell the story (overall M¼123 seconds, SD ¼55 seconds, t<1). However,
the predicted effect on language abstraction did emerge. In the positive expression condition participants used more
abstract language to tell the story of the film (M¼2.34; SD ¼0.23), in comparison to the negative expression condition
(M¼2.21; SD ¼0.19), t(52) ¼2.08, p<.05, d¼0.58. In addition, perceived feelings was found to be significantly related
to language abstraction, r(54) ¼.34, p<.025. This confirms the hypothesis.
When analyzing at a more specific level I found that the effect of expression condition on the mean language abstraction
was mainly due to differences in the number of used abstract predicates. In both conditions, participants do tell the
concrete facts of the event. That is, no differences were observed in the number of used concrete action verbs (dav and iav,
t’s <1.3; e.g., ‘‘He arranges newspapers in his stand,’’ ‘‘customers enter the store and buy cigarettes’’). However, in the
positive (compared to negative) expression condition participants add relatively more interpretive and abstract statements
(state-verbs and adjectives) about the events to the mere factual information (e.g., ‘‘He’s had enough of it,’’ ‘‘He doesn’t
trust people anymore,’’ sv’s, t(52) ¼2.03, p<.05, d¼0.56; ‘‘the man is really a boring/sad/lonely person,’’ adj’s,
t(52) ¼2.33, p<.025, d¼0.65).
It is interesting to find out whether participants are to some extent aware of the linguistic bias they produce. Language
abstraction was, across expression conditions, indeed positively related to participants’ judgment about ‘‘whether they
described what people are like as a person,’r(54) ¼.51, p<.001, ‘‘how lively they described the events,’r(54) ¼.28,
p<.05, and ‘‘whether they added things that were not directly visible in the film,’’ r(54) ¼.23, p¼.089. The first two of
these items also differed significantly between expression conditions: in the positive expression condition participants
indicated that they said more about what people are like as a person (M¼4.59, SD ¼1.34), and that they produced a more
lively description (M¼3.96, SD ¼1.16), compared to participants in the negative expression condition (resp., M¼3.67,
SD ¼1.44, t(52) ¼2.45, p<.025; M¼2.89, SD ¼0.93, t(52) ¼3.75, p<.001).
No effects of condition were observed on items tapping in to a concrete style of description (i.e., careful, detailed,
objective). This might, however, reflect the previously discussed finding that the difference between conditions is mainly
situated in the additional use of abstract statements.
Possible Mediation
From the literature one can both predict a direct effect of listeners’ expression on language abstraction or a mediated effect,
in which the effect is mediated by the speakers’ own mood. To test this possible mediation, we used three measures of
participant mood; reported mood (measure 2), participants’ rated affective expression, and the mood change score. To
establish mediation the following conditions must hold (Baron & Kenny, 1986):
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/ejsp
752 Camiel J. Beukeboom
First, the IV, listener expression condition must be predictive of the potential mediator. As reported before, this was the
case for reported mood (measure 2) and participants’ rated affective expression; these two potential mediators showed
significant differences between listener expression conditions. Participants’ mood change, however, was not significantly
predicted by listener expression condition (dummy coded) in a linear regression analysis, b¼.15, t(52) ¼1.11, p¼.27.
Second, the IV, listener expression condition must be predictive of the dependent variable language abstraction. This
condition holds, as reported before.
Third, when regressing the DV language abstraction simultaneously on both listener expression condition (dummy
coded) and the potential mediator, the mediator must be significantly predictive of language abstraction. Three separate
regression analyses, showed that this was not the case for each potential mediator (mood b¼.14, t<1, ns; expression
b¼.13, t<1, ns; mood change b¼.24, t(51) ¼1.78, ns). Thus, mediation by participant mood was not established.
DISCUSSION
The present results confirm the hypothesis that affective expressions of listeners change a speaker’s language use. Even
though the listeners had no active speaking role in the interaction, their affective expression had a significant impact on
how a story was told by participants. Participants telling a story to a smiling audience used relatively more abstract and
interpretive language, compared to participants telling the same story to a frowning audience. These findings extend
previous work on the effects of listeners in communication (Bavelas et al., 2000; Clark & Krych, 2004; Higgins, 1992) by
revealing the effects of affective expression on language abstraction.
One likely explanation for these findings is that speakers use the affective expressions of their audience as signals about
acceptance and understanding. Presumably, when talking to listeners who respond positively by smiling and nodding,
abstraction is encouraged because such expressions are perceived as signals of agreement and understanding. In that case,
speakers implicitly feel that abstract statements (conveying a more interpretive, subjective, and generalizing view of the
event) are accepted and understood, and therefore appropriate. In contrast, listeners with a negative expression (e.g.,
frowning) signal a low level of agreement and acceptance. In that case, speakers feel that a more careful, analytic and
descriptive style of formulating information is called for and refrain from interpretative statements.
It seems likely that the tuning of language abstraction in response to external affective cues is supported at an intra-
personal level, by shifts in cognitive processing styles (Higgins, McCann, & Fondacaro, 1982; Zajonc, 1960). The affect-
as-information-account (Schwarz, 2002; Schwarz & Clore, 1996; Soldat & Sinclair, 2001) provides a possible underlying
mechanism for the described findings. Work within this framework has demonstrated that people rely on experienced or
perceived affective cues to tune the way in which they cognitively process information (Bless, 2000; Schwarz, 2002). It
seems likely that when speakers are confronted with an apparent positive, agreeing, and accepting audience, they tune to a
global processing style, because the situation is benign. When confronted with an apparent negative, rejecting, and
disagreeing audience, however, a more careful processing style is needed to deal with this situation. These different
processing styles are reflected in language abstraction (Beukeboom & Semin, 2006). Thus, speakers in face-to-face
conversations functionally use the affective expressions of listeners as information about how to deal with the
communicated information.
In my view this describes a functional and adaptive conversational mechanism. Relying on affective cues to adopt the
appropriate level of abstraction allows speakers to be responsive to the requirements of the conversation. It regulates the
conversation process and implicitly helps speakers to efficiently maintain common ground (Krauss & Fussell, 1991;
Krauss et al., 1977; Kraut et al., 1982). It is important to note, however, that conversation partners may not always strive to
obtain full mutual agreement and understanding with each other. Take the example of a politician who does not want her
audience to be aware of the concrete background of a decision. This person may, in the face of a crowd of frowning
sceptical reporters, turn to using very abstract utterances (e.g., ‘‘Our prime goal in this endeavor is to protect freedom’’),
rather than provide more concrete information. A prerequisite for the proposed conversational mechanism may therefore
be that a speaker has the goal to collaborate and adhere to what Grice (1975) referred to as the cooperative principle.
Consistent with previous work (Ottati et al., 1997; Soldat & Sinclair, 2001) a mediation analyses found no support for
the idea that the observed effects of external affective cues were mediated by participants’ own mood. Even though
people’s own mood is capable of inducing similar effects on language use (Beukeboom & Semin, 2006), in the present
Copyright #2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 39, 747–756 (2009)
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Affective expression of listeners and language use 753
interpersonal communicative situation the speaker’s own mood was, although positively related, not significantly
predictive of language abstraction. One reason for this might be that the speaker’s mood was induced while speakers were
telling their story, and possibly only by the end of their story (through mood contagion), which might have dampened its
possible effect. Second, people do rely on different affective cues to tune their information processing style to the current
situation. It might be the case that speakers experienced the external affective cues in the present interpersonal situation as
a more informative cue than their own internal feelings. Future research may shed more light on these issues.
The present study focused on asymmetrical dialogues, in which only one person has a speaking role. It seems, however,
very likely that similar processes occur in more interactive conversations. In this study, speakers mimicked the affective
expression of the listeners and adopted a congruent mood state (cf. Hatfield et al., 1994; Neumann & Strack, 2000). In an
interactive setting, wherein conversation partners are able to reply, the speaker’s expression, in turn, is likely to induce
differences in language use in the listeners’ replies or questions. This way, conversation partners continuously influence
each other’s utterances. When both have positive expressions they will increasingly stimulate each other to utter
interpretative and abstract statements about the topic of conversation. When they have negative expressions they will
withhold each other from making interpretative statements, but instead cause one another to stick to concrete information.
The fact that abstract and concrete language (e.g., in questions) induces replies at the same level of abstraction (Semin &
De Poot, 1997) adds to this perpetuating process. Thus, subtle affective cues may strongly direct the course and outcome of
conversations.
Another important implication is that tailoring messages to an audience not only affect the messages that are
formulated, but also shape further inferences, memories, and subsequent representations of the communicated
information. When formulating an abstract representation of an event to a smiling audience, people convey a subjective
interpretation of the event and they imply more about the enduring personality of the described persons (e.g., he is a bored
and lonesome person; Semin & Fiedler, 1988, 1991). Instead, to a frowning audience speakers provide merely concrete
and contextual information, allowing for accurate and objective encoding (e.g., he gets up and goes to work, few people
enter his store). Research on the saying-is-believing effect (Higgins & Rholes, 1978) has demonstrated that when a
particular view of information is formulated, and accepted by the audience, this representation is also likely to be
memorized, and regarded as a reliable and valid account of the event or target person (Echterhoff, Higgins, & Groll, 2005).
Affective signals could thus determine the level of abstraction at which a shared representation, or shared reality is created
(Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Higgins, 1992; Thompson & Fine, 1999).
Consider what this means. By merely smiling or frowning a listener could influence how a speaker reports information
and how it is subsequently remembered, and possibly passed on. In, for instance, witness interrogations, job interviews,
politics, or psychotherapy, a simple smile or frown could potentially have a large impact.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The author thanks Linda Douma, Camille Welie, Toon Welling, and Intan Samsuria for running this study, and several
anonymous reviewers and Johan Karremans for constructive comments.
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... This perspective is known as the reactive backchanneling theory [91]. On the contrary, other researchers started to study the listener's active participation in the development of a conversation, which also extends to backchanneling [6,10,15,[61][62][63] -these studies form the proactive backchanneling theory [86]. We referenced these studies in stating the definition of reactive backchannels (RBC) and proactive 1 https://www.MoCAtest.org/app/ ...
... This perspective is known as the reactive backchanneling theory [91]. On the contrary, other researchers started to study the listener's active participation in the development of a conversation, which also extends to backchanneling [6,10,15,[61][62][63] -these studies form the proactive backchanneling theory [86]. We referenced these studies in stating the definition of reactive backchannels (RBC) and proactive 1 https://www.MoCAtest.org/app/ ...
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