Friday, June 22, 2012

What to say when saying something nice

When people say nice things about each other, what sentiment do they try to express?

When people contribute a message to a gleambook, we encourage them to say something heartfelt; to go beyond just saying “Happy Birthday!” or “You’re great!” and to put into words what their friend or loved one really means to them. Consequently, we’ve accumulated a wide variety of messages, ranging from funny to contemplative, so we thought it would be interesting to analyse how people say nice things to each other. You might call it the Science of Sentiment.

From what you’ve told us, we identified six categories of feelgood message, which we define as:

  • IN-JOKE - these messages seem obscure or bizarre to most, but will have special humorous significance to both the sender and recipient. (an example)

  • DESCRIPTIVE - these messages express how the sender sees the recipient, often listing their best features or a hidden talent others may not see. (an example)

  • YOU MATTER TO ME - these are sentimental messages expressing true affection, personal to both writer and recipient, often using pet names or nicknames. (an example)

  • CELEBRATION - these messages pay tribute to recipient, lauding characteristics or accomplishments that will be well-known to their friends and colleagues. (an example)

  • SHARED PAST - these recall a short story or shared experience, a memory of the journey they’ve made together. (an example)

  • BORROWED WORDS - these are typically quotations, or a message using words or phrases with particular significance to the recipient. (an example)

The variety of messages we found seems to reflect the different ways in which we relate to those closest to us.

The most commonly found type was the Descriptive message, which made up 36.3% of all messages. Authors of descriptive messages could be precise and perceptive, or poetic and emotional, but their goal is the same - to let the recipient know they recognise what makes them special, and to make them feel good about it.

The second most popular category, accounting for 21% of messages, involved a Shared Past. The writers of these messages are storytellers at heart, preferring to remind the recipient of the times they shared together than write something emotional.

In 16.1% of our messages, someone was told: You Matter To Me. These writers were not afraid to express their emotions, wanting to let the recipient know how much they love them. These messages are most likely to be sent between family members, which may be why they make up only a sixth of all messages. It may even be due to some people not feeling able to open up and show how much they care, or believing a written message doesn’t quite feel like the right medium to express how they feel.

Celebration messages are more likely to be sent between work colleagues; here the primary sentiment is praise, that we love being around you, or fun things happen around you, or simply you are exceptional in what you do. These messages constituted 13.7% of our sample.

Someone sending an In-Joke is not only remembering a humorous moment, but also intimating that their friendship is sprinkled with laughter that others just wouldn’t understand. In our sample, in-jokes accounted for 9.7% of messages.

Our final category was also the least frequent, with only 3.2% borrowing words from quotations rather than using their own. We wonder if this small group of people preferred the conciseness of an apposite quotation, or found it uncomfortable trying to put their own feelings into words.

Although we've identified these categories by looking at gleambook messages, we think we see the same basic types of message wherever people say nice things about each other, be they in birthday cards, leaving cards or wedding cards. 

Virtual messages, such as birthday greetings posted on Facebook, tend to be much briefer: typically a quick “happy birthday mate!” or “have a great day! xxx”. Perhaps on Facebook our sentiments are abbreviated by the immediacy of communication. The ritual of picking up a pen, and pondering what to say is replaced by the temptation to quickly type something that won’t seem too weird or slushy to others, knowing the recipient and their friends will see our message flash onto their screens moments after we type it.

So, the next time you’re staring at a blank card, or blank textbox, with an equally blank mind, struggling to think of something nice to say, why not be creative?

Allude to an in-joke or use a quotation.
Or praise one of their special talents.
Or tell them how much they mean to you.
Or remind them of that amazing time you shared.
Or simply say what makes them special.

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