NPR recently reported on the work that James Pennebaker, a University of Texas, Austin psychologist, is doing on people’s use of what linguists call function words. Those are the little words, “I,” “the,” “and,” and the like that we use in conversation. Apparently, human beings can’t keep track of how many of these words we use in a sentence, but computers can; and we’re learning a lot about how people communicate as a result.
One finding might have interesting applications:
Some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.
“It’s amazingly simple,” Pennebaker says, “Listen to the relative use of the word “I.”
What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word “I” less.
We use “I” more when we talk to someone with power because we’re more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves — how we’re coming across — and our language reflects that.
And while Pennebaker doesn’t think that it’s possible to “fake it ’till you make it” by changing one’s use of “I,” it might be more effective at evening the psychological playing field.
As an experiment this week, I made conscious choices to use “I” less in e-mails with people in positions of power. The responses I got were more collegial. Perhaps by using “I” less, I gave those I was communicating with a subtle cue to think of me as a peer instead of a subordinate.
Obviously, that’s just anecdotal. I’d be curious to see an experiment designed to test whether “I”-free communication can make a difference in how others see you.
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