The Personal Pronoun Problem

What 'I' says about 'you'


The current conversations about pronouns surrounds third-person preferences. But what about the use of the first-person pronoun?

A selection of blue emojis
Who is I?

Overuse of the first-person pronouns - "I", "me", the self-referential "Simon" (in my case, obvs) and the possessive, "my" - often gives the impression of arrogance in the user. Referring to the first-person gives the air 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 masculine.


So it may come as a surprise to learn that heavy use of the first-person pronoun can be a sign of depression in the user.


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.


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 about 'me'.


Blowing the myths of 'me'


Myth 1

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.


Myth 2

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.


Myth 3

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.


Myth 4

‘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, you are more likely to switch to the second-person ‘you’ (“Thank you for doing…”) or the passive (“It’s looking good”).


 

Remember me

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 give 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.

 

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