Pronouns: Secret Windows Into Your Soul

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Do your words point in a different direction than you think? (Janus photo courtesy Flickr user Abode of Chaos)

We were taught in English classes that a pronoun is just a stand-in for a noun. So if you’re talking a lot about Susan, rather than repeating her name over and over, you use “her” and “she” a lot, to represent her. So a pronoun was supposedly just a word that pointed to something that you didn’t need to name all the time. Nothing more, right?

Boy was everyone wrong about that.

I noticed something  a long time ago, with a relative who often switched pronouns as she talked. She’d start a sentence with “I”, but by the end of the sentence she’d be using “you,” in the sense of meaning “people in general.” I thought this was a mere curiosity, till I realized that the pronoun shift always took place when the topic was too close to her personally. Even in mid-sentence, she’d switch to a more “general person” pronoun  as though shying away from exposing herself too much. Her pronoun changes became better indicators of her real meaning than the rest of what she said. If you detected the switch, you knew she was veering away from something that had gotten too close.

It turns out I wasn’t imagining the significance of the pronouns. Social Psychologist James Pennebaker, of UT Austin, did an extensive study of what pronouns reveal about their users’ hearts and minds. And he extended the study to include what he called “cognitive words” (because, believe, think), “emotion words” (love, hate, sad, happy), and “social words” (cousin, friend). It turns out that women use both cognitive and social words way more than men, as well as I-words (first person pronouns). Men want the concrete, so they use articles more, while women negotiate the world via relationship, which requires all those other words.

The unnerving thing, Pennebaker said in a recent interview in Scientific American (The Secret Language Code) is that these differences hold true throughout history, with a few extra twists. (For example, suicidal poets used I-words more than non-suicidal poets) So he now thinks these discoveries could be used as tools to understand historical figures a lot better, not to mention modern-day speakers and writers.

And isn’t that unnerving! Does your own language reveal more about you than you thought it did? My relative certainly knew the difference between I-words and more general pronouns, even if her knowledge was subconscious.

The Secret Life of Pronouns; link to book at Powell's BooksThis is another example of why words matter. We always need to choose our words carefully, especially when trying to convey important information to someone else. And it’s not just the so-called big, important words that are so crucial. In fact, it’s those small, “throwaway” words like “he,” “our,” and “the” which can lay our hearts and minds open to others in ways we might not even detect.

(James Pennebaker has now written a book about what he’s found: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us)

2 thoughts on “Pronouns: Secret Windows Into Your Soul

  • The use of the generic second person when one is clearly referring to oneself is quite possibly my biggest language pet peeve. Examples I’ve heard recently,

    From a politician, “You’d get these calls from constituents and they’d want you to fix their problems”
    From a journalist, “The police were spraying tear gas, and you could hear screaming all around you”
    “The road was dark, but the light was bright and you could see for miles”

    • I do believe in the generic second person for referring to general people. But yes, when it clearly should refer to the person’s own experience or feelings, you know there is some distancing going on. (I can sometimes feel that inner shift, myself, and kind of chuckle.) Then the question arises: WHY the distancing? Sometimes it’s modesty — and sometimes there’s a real issue.

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