Are there hidden messages in your emails? Yes, and in everything you write or say, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker has been a leader in the computer analysis of texts for their psychological content. And in his new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” he argues that how we use words like “I,” “she,” and “who” reveal secrets of our psychology.
…One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.
I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached — hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.
90 percent of influence is in the most subtle little factors, so I absolutely love finding little tweaks like this. Putting them to work properly can create insane amounts of leverage, so it’s time to get used to speaking without these submissive pronouns.