Standing out while fitting in: Examining linguistic choices by boundary spanners

Xun Zhu, Rachel A. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Boundary spanners live a precarious social life. They need to stand out to receive ideas from different groups and fit into some groups enough to influence their peers. We investigated how boundary spanners make linguistic choices to manage the tension of distinctiveness and belonging. We identified boundary spanners based on their betweenness centrality in a large review network (23,851 users and 118,545 reviews). We found that, compared to non-boundary spanners, boundary spanners used less bonding language to set themselves apart, but used more utility language to enhance social value. Boundary spanners’ use of bonding language varied with their popularity in social networks. More (vs. less) popular boundary spanners showed a stronger tendency to avoid we-words but not positive emotional words.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)418-439
Number of pages22
JournalCommunication Monographs
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dr. Paul Schrodt and three anonymous reviewers for their substantive and constructive feedback on an earlier version of this paper and Xuan Ma for her assistance in preparing the data.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 National Communication Association.


  • Boundary spanner
  • language use
  • minority influence
  • network analysis
  • opinion leadership

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics


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