If you're a normal human being, most times you refer to yourself in the first person: "I went to the store to buy pickles because I had a craving," or "I believe in individual liberty over the common good."
Then there are the odd ducks among us who have a habit of talking in the third person from time to time: "Nick went to the store to buy pickles because Nick had a craving" ... "Nick believes in individual liberty over the common good."
The quirkiest of "illeists"--the term for somebody who talks this way--has to be ex-President Donald Trump. The notorious third-person-in-chief, Trump became known in his presidency to talk about himself by referring to himself: "There's never been a president like President Trump." No argument there.
In a meeting with his foundation a few years ago, later published by MSNBC, Bill Gates commented on this peculiar character trait of Trump. "When I walked in," says Gates, "his first sentence kind of threw me off. He said, 'Trump hears that you don't like what Trump is doing.' And I thought, 'Wow. But you're Trump.' So I didn't know if the third-party form was what was expected."
The psychological case for talking in the third-person
Maybe Trump is onto something? Here me out. There's a hidden secret to speaking in the third person. Reserved not just for quirky celebrities and self-serving politicians, it's a tactic that serves a purpose: distancing oneself from anxiety.
To be sure, anxiety is part of the human condition. It's an adaptive emotional state that allows us to perform at our best, build connections with others, and find meaning in a chaotic world. But being in a chronic anxious state is bad for us.
Finding separation from anxiety is critical for many leaders in today's VUCA reality. Referred to as "psychological distancing," it helps us gain some space between our unhelpful negative thoughts/feelings and the world in which we must navigate.
In particular, psychological distancing through third-person speech makes negative self-views less emotionally troubling, and has even shown to reduce people's level of cardiovascular reactivity.
Third-person in the brain
In a recent set of experiments, a team of neuroscientists asked people to recall negative events of personal failure, while assigning half of participants to a first-person self-talk instruction (using "I") and the other half to a third-person self-talk instruction (using their first name).
People using third-person showed less self-referential emotional reactivity in the brain compared to those using first-person. And, interestingly, though the self-talk strategy distanced people from the pang of anxiety and self-doubt, it reserved the brain's ability to perform and stay motivated on task.
Leaders can't afford to be caught up in personal doubt and anxiety. They need the psychological distance to be calm, selfless, and focused. So, while many of us might see Trump's third person speech habit as indicative of his overbearing conceitedness, there's no denying the fact that he almost never appears bothered by stress. So in that regard, maybe we can all take a page from the world's worst (best) illeist.