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Love missed, but artfully described Professor and students research the language of love lost in Craigslist's 'missed connections' posts

It’s no surprise to anyone who has perused those wistful missed connections posts on Craigslist that there are a whole lot of pining men out there writing them.

Those anonymous ad-like messages — “You were the cute girl in the plaid shirt at Starbucks this morning. I was the guy who ordered the no-foam latte” — are the digital wasteland of wistful stories about the one that got away. The chance meeting that ended in small talk because the bus/train/plane arrived. Or the cute glance that might have meant something more.

Undergraduate researchers

Undergraduates finding their names on published research is not unusual at Chapman. Students assisting Bevan with this project and listed as authors on the published paper include:

  • Jimena Galvan ’15
  • Justin Villasenor ’15
  • Joanna Henkin ’14

To learn more about such opportunities, visit the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity website.

Now a Chapman University researcher has some insights into who is posting those ads – yes, mostly men – and the types of descriptive language they use in them. Jennifer Bevan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Communication Studies, says those people may never connect, but studying the language they use to describe their lost opportunities lends insight into patterns of human attraction.

“It’s a very interesting phenomenon. At least for Americans, people really believe in that idea of love at first sight, seeing each other across a crowded train and then somehow contacting them,” says Bevan.

Bevan and a handful of undergraduate researchers analyzed the language in a random sampling of 450 postings to see what kinds of adjectives, words and descriptors the posters used in their missed connections messages. Regardless of sexual orientation, the most commonly described traits were physical attractiveness, with 40 percent of posters describing beauty and good looks. Their findings were reported in the article “You’ve been on my mind ever since”: A content analysis of expressions of interpersonal attraction in Craigslist.org’s Missed Connections posts” published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

But surprising to Bevan was the variety of descriptors that made up the other 60 percent. Descriptions of eye contact – “We exchanged glances” – came next and were used by 11 percent of the posters. From there a long list of descriptors includes everything from brief conversations, sound of voice, activities – “You kindly opened and held the door open for me” to the vague but ever-hopeful “I felt like we had a connection.”

Jennifer Bevan, Ph.D.
Jennifer Bevan, Ph.D.

At a time when online dating is growing in popularity, such information is valuable, Bevan says. Other studies have looked at the most common locales mentioned in the posts, but Bevan was more interested in the human communication that sparks in the fleeting encounters.

“It’s data that gives us insight into how people are attracted to each other,” she says. “Understanding something that is so much a part of popular culture is important.”

Bevan and the student researchers followed Craigslist privacy rules, so they contacted none of the posters and don’t know how often these folks connect or to what extent the posts might be false or “fishing” for any respondent looking for love.

But that an overwhelming 87 percent of the posts they studied were listed by men suggests there might be more to learn. Communication research has found that men are pretty good at detecting flirtatious behavior, Bevan says, while women are slower to pick up on the hints.

“Maybe males are understanding flirtation but not really knowing how to act on it,” Bevan says.

So will those women even have a clue that they should go check out the missed connections posts after they brushed shoulders with that guy in the supermarket checkout line?

That’s just one of many “more interesting facets” still to be researched, Bevan says.

Dawn Bonker

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