What Do Your Pronouns Say about You?

For most academics, summer is a great time to recharge and let new ideas grow. Reading books that seem to have little or nothing to do with our teaching can be an effective way to refill the creativity-and-enthusiasm tank.

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us, by social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, has been such a book for me.  I noticed the book on a display table when strolling through a bookstore back in the spring and finally got a chance to read it. Pennebaker and his associates at the University of Texas at Austin have extensively studied the connections between language use and psychology, even developing computer programs to analyze vast samples of writing. Their primary claim is that the “stealth words”—pronouns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs—tell a great deal about us.

For example,

–“Men, older people, and higher social classes all use noun clusters [nouns, articles, and pronouns] at high rates; women, younger people, and lower social classes use pronoun-verb clusters [pronouns, present tense verbs, auxiliary verbs, and such cognitive words as understand, think, and because] at high rates” (70).

–Women tend to use more social pronouns (we, us, he, she, they, them) than men. Interestingly, testosterone level (not just social conditioning) seems to have an effect on the use of these words.

–Liars and other untrustworthy people tend to use fewer details, more emotional words, more I-words, smaller words, and fewer signs of complex thinking than truthful people.

–Leaders and others who want to project authority use we and you at a higher rate and I at a lower rate than those with less authority. (In this case, we is used more as the “royal we” and not as the personal we.)

–Groups whose members’ language styles match tend to be more effective than those whose members use different style—but the longer the members work together, the more similar their styles become (and the more the we-words outnumber the I-words).

–Whole groups of people can have a “linguistic fingerprint.” How they use language, especially the “stealth words,” indicates not only what they focus on but how they relate to the world and each other.

The author comments that such words “are virtually impossible to manipulate” (77)—but it turns out that that’s not quite true. For example, “Leaders can become more effective by first listening to and analyzing their own language” (193), and it’s implied that group members can achieve faster “groupness” by consciously adopting a we-focus.

As I ruminate on the possible connections to teaching bcomm, these thoughts come to mind:

–In cases where we’re asking our students to write or speak from a position of authority, we can help them become aware of and use the more subtle stylistic signals of confidence. (A corollary thought: No wonder our students have such difficulty writing authoritatively; they’re not in positions of power and thus tend to write in a lower-status style.)

–In cases where a more feminine or masculine style could be more effective, we can coach students on the traits of those styles.

–We can use Pennebaker’s discoveries about truthful language to help our students write with greater credibility.

–We could share Pennebaker’s insights about effective groups with our students and advise them to strive for a more group-like style (which brings with it a more group-like perspective).

I did not seek these payoffs; I simply wanted an interesting read. Luckily for me, I got that as well. Pennebaker’s stories are fascinating, and his own style is low-key, humble, and entertaining. I urge you to read the book for yourself—and to offer your own recommendations for summer reading.

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