Professor James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, Austin, has an unusual interest-- those little words like "I" and "the" that most of us totally ignore. To study them, he and his team built a computer program to sift through everyday language, looking for patterns in how we use these insignificant-seeming words.

On NPR recently, Alix Spiegel delved into the results of this research and learned that how we use pronouns reveals profound truths about power, relationships, and status. This fascinating article goes into Pennebaker's findings in depth, including their relevance for daters and other romantic partners, but one particular conclusion will be of special interest to entrepreneurs.

Power: It's all down to "I"

"By analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status," Spiegel reports. How? Just listen for the word "I."

After crunching through piles of data, it turns out a simple pattern emerges--the more power you have, the less likely you are to use the first-person pronoun. This applies to all of us, Pennebaker insists (he even offers some of his own personal emails as examples), and while we do not realize that about ourselves, data analysis reveals the truth.

What accounts for this? "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," Spiegel explains.

Putting this finding to use

Which leads to a very important question: Can we use this insight to project greater power? Could we manipulate our writing styles to come across as more sure of ourselves and commanding in an email? Unfortunately, probably not, according to Pennebaker. "You can't, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that's what his research indicates," sums up Spiegel.

Now that you're aware of it, have a look at the frequency of the word "I" in your communications.

Does paying attention to pronouns reveal anything interesting about the power relationships around you?

Published on: Sep 11, 2014