Communicating Like a Human: Lesson 8.
How personal is the personal pronoun?
Overuse of the first-person pronoun, "I" or its derivatives, "my", "me", or even "Simon" (in my case) is a trait many associate with the arrogant, the self-important, and, let's face it, with men.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that first-person pronouns are common signs that the user may be a depressive.
It might also shock you to know that the pronoun "I" is more commonly used by women than men.
You may not have considered that those who seem to actively avoid personal pronouns like "me" can be liars. Or at least, aren't being factually precise. They subconsciously switch to the third-person as a way of putting distance between themselves and the untruths of their statement.
We got a clue to these truths when we looked at the language used by the virtual assistants. Let's take a look at the language techniques they use and then we will share the research that shows what connects first-person pronouns with depressives, women and liars.
Proponents of the personal pronoun
The 'genderless' virtual assistants are all proponents of the first-person pronoun.
To put it bluntly, Alexa, Siri, and Google like to talk about themselves. A lot.
Across the three conversations we analysed, personal pronouns account for one word in every six. A little over 16% of the virtual assistants’ words are self-referential.
To give some context, the first-person pronoun accounts for around 4% of a typical human conversation.
The ‘other’ first-person
Siri also talks about herself in the third-person. Like people do when they are posh. Or mad.
Siri uses her name when she's telling you what she can do. Perhaps she is simply role-playing you when she does this. She also uses her name to introduce herself.
In these situations, using Siri doesn't make Siri sound too crazy bonkers. Nor would it make you seem self-obsessed. (Though it may raise eyebrows if you use the name Siri in place of your own.)
But it stands out across the conversations. I asked all the virtual assistants the same questions. It was only Siri who used her own name in the responses.
I should clarify that analysis was only done on the words spoken directly by the virtual assistants. Anything said by guest speakers was excluded. This means we didn’t include mentions of ‘Alexa’ by Santa or the backing singers. If you have no clue what that means, watch 2001: A Smart Speaker Odyssey and all will become clear.
The passive first-person
Google also uses the object pronoun (ie, ‘me’). This makes him the passive receiver to whom things happen. He isn't leading the actions.
Using the object pronoun can make you appear servile. Google uses me or myself more times than Siri and Alexa combined.
The interminable introductory first-person
It’s difficult to avoid the first-person pronoun when making introductions. Alexa goes all out for making her presence known with her "Alexa ooh-ooh" song.
If you were to remove the words from this song, Alexa’s use of the personal pronoun would be minimal.
So, we didn’t.
The assumption of arrogance
Using the first-person – or referring to self – seems like the manner of someone who is supremely confident. Perhaps a CEO or successful leader of industry.
If you are more cynical, you might expect it to be used by over-confident, public school types. Many of us would also think of this manner of speech as something used more by men than women.
These are fair assumptions that I also shared.
They make little sense in the context of the virtual assistants. When people have difficulties with communicating with Alexa, for example, it’s not because she sounds arrogant. This curiosity led me to digging deeper into what first-person pronoun usage tells us.
It transpires that what we see in the VAs is completely in line with human behaviour. Their predominant use of the personal pronoun being appropriate to the role they play.
Get in touch to see how 1 Extra Word can help you make your business writing better.
The insecurity of the first-person
Though the stereotype of the presumption has logic behind it, according to research that’s been widely accepted in the fields of linguistics and psychology, the reality turns out to be the complete opposite.
Social psychologist Professor James W. Pennebaker analysed nearly half a million texts and counted parts-of-speech usage. His book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, blows several myths:
Most people think men use 'I' more because men are more narcissistic and self-congratulatory.
The research showed that women use the personal pronoun more often than men. That’s not because women are also more narcissistic. The focus on the self is derived from the higher prevalence of women to be self-aware.
People who use 'I' have a large ego that inflates self-confidence and self-belief.
Pennebaker found a person uses personal pronouns more when they become less self-confident. It is a demonstration of self-reflection more than self-aggrandising.
A person medically diagnosed with depression will use the personal pronouns around 50% more than someone who isn’t depressed.
Replacing ‘I’ with another pronoun, or avoiding pronouns altogether, is a sign of a team player.
People who completely avoid using personal pronouns are often hiding the truth. They distance themselves from something they know to be suspect by overuse of the third-person (‘we’), or by removing the pronoun altogether to make the sentence passive.
‘I’ is used by leaders and those in positions of power.
The more someone uses the first-person pronoun, the lower their status is likely to be. Think about times you may plead with a boss or fuss around a guest. Natural deference leads you to use phrases like “I hoped that…”, “I wondered if…”, “Can I do…”.
Conversely, when you are in the superior position as the boss or the guest, you are more likely to switch to the second-person ‘you’ (“Thank you for doing…”) or the passive (“It’s looking good”).
In summary, the virtual assistants’ high use of the personal pronoun is because they exist to serve our every need. Not necessarily the impression you want to give in your writing or speaking.
If you want to inflate the ego of your audience, using the first-person pronoun will put you in a deferential role.
The passive nature of the third-person can lead to the impression that you’re lying.
If someone always seems to talk about themselves, it could be a sign of depression, rather than arrogance.
All quotes about, and references to, the research are taken from interviews with Professor James W. Pennebaker published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 and the Wall Street Journal in 2013. You can read the full findings of his research in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, available on Amazon.
1 Extra Word is a copywriting service.
But we don't just write copy.
We write business human.
If you're in business and you need to communicate, see how 1 Extra Word can help you stand out from the crowd.
For freelance copywriting that turns bland content into brand content, visit www.1extraword.com and let's have a word.