The Power of Pronouns


From the Sunday Book Review

Toward the end of his penetrating new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” Pennebaker crunches the numbers on presidential press conferences since Truman and finds that “Obama has distinguished himself as the lowest I-word user of any of the modern presidents.” If anything, Obama has shown a disdain for the first-person singular during his administration.

More interesting is why. Why do people think Obama uses the word “I” more than other presidents? Confirmation Bias.

He chalks it up the selective way we process information: “If we think that someone is arrogant, our brains will be searching for evidence to confirm our beliefs.” If we’re predisposed to look for clues that Obama is all about “me me me,” then every “me” he utters takes on outsize importance in our impressionistic view of his speechifying.

What do pronouns say about us?

“The Secret Life of Pronouns” outlines in lively and accessible detail how that initial discovery led Pennebaker to appreciate the many ways in which function words reveal our interior lives. He has found strong correlations according to such factors as gender, age and class. For instance, women, younger people and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs — words that supposedly signal both lower status and greater social orientation. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans.

…More convincing are cases where Pennebaker and his fellow researchers catch on-the-fly changes in the way people connect with others, from lying to loving. In seeking a bond, people readily accommodate to one another’s manner of speaking through “language style matching,” getting their function words in sync. When an experience is shared, whether it’s building a business relationship, supporting a sports team or commiserating after a tragedy like 9/11, pronouns can mutate, with “I” dropping out in favor of the inclusive “we.” But “we” doesn’t always indicate solidarity: John Kerry’s advisers made that mistake during the 2004 presidential race, Pennebaker says, by trying to get their candidate to use “we” more often. Kerry was already using “we” too much, and to negative effect. “When politicians use them,” Pennebaker writes, “we-words sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant.”

If you're interested in what pronouns say about us, buy the book.

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