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The Secret Life of Pronouns

I just finished reading Jamie Pennebaker’s book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us. Dr. Pennebaker is a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies how language relates to who we are and how we interact with others. This book provides an interesting look at the intersection between linguistics and, well, everything else. Here are 5 things I learned while reading this book:

  1. Reading this book has made me incredibly self-conscious about everything I write. This includes the number of I-words in an email to my boss and the manuscript revisions I’m working on with several colleagues. As I build this website and blog, I am hyper-aware of every first-person pronoun (I or we) and what information I’m conveying. It reminds me of the first time I read Sam Gosling‘s research on what our personal spaces say about us. Suddenly, you feel naked, like every word or action reveals who you really are. On the flip side, it makes me curious about who I “really am.” A quick analysis of journals, emails, and Facebook comments could be fascinating…
  2. The word we can have vastly different effects, depending on what meaning is implied. Pennebaker says there are 5 different types of we, only one of which is the “warm and fuzzy” we (you and me). The rest can be used to distance oneself from others. “We (my husband and me, but not you) enjoyed that movie. We (you, not me) should take out the trash. We (me, in the royal sense) are not amused. We (humans) all need to feel that we can make our own choices.” These differences are sometimes subtle, but they’re important. They can affect perceptions of warmth, status, and intimacy in relationships.
  3. Word usage can be used to sniff out deception, including self-deception. Pennebaker studied this by looking at letters of recommendation, which are almost always positive. He was able to find subtle differences between letters for high-achieving students, compared to average students. I’d be interested to see if we can find similar trends in written comments on evaluations for faculty and medical residents. Evaluation scores are often inflated, but maybe written comments could point to which high scores are genuine.
  4. In work teams, performance is best when team members show better language style matching. This indicates a shared view of the problem and the goal. On a related note, Pennebaker also studied the language resulting from collaboration (e.g., Beatles lyrics written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney). He found evidence of what he called synergy, but I will call it emergence. When two people truly collaborate, they produce linguistic patterns that are distinct from their individual patterns or the average of their patterns. This is evidence of how group interactions can take on a life of their own. In a high-performing team, individuals may communicate with similar styles, but they will ultimately produce something that represents the group’s unique patterns.
  5. If you read this book, it’s important to remember that word usage is a product of our personality and the context, not the other way around (Pennebaker brings this up repeatedly). By using a lot of I-words with my boss, I’m signaling that I understand the hierarchy. If I suddenly shifted to a higher-status language pattern, I won’t automatically get a promotion. I’m more likely to be seen as arrogant or maybe socially awkward.

Overall, The Secret Life of Pronouns is a great overview of how linguistic analysis can be used in a variety of fields.

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