Professor James Pennbaker of the University of Texas, Austin has an unusual interest — filler words.
Rather than the intricacies of human emotion or the grandest turns of phrase, Pennebaker has made it his life's work to pay careful attention to those little words like 'I' and 'the' that most of us totally ignore. To do this, 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, finding that how we use filler words isn't just significant but can reveal profound truths about power, relationships, and status. The 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. We all do it, Pennbaker insists (he even offers some of his own personal emails as examples) without realizing it, but data analysis reveals the truth.
Why? "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 leaves one very important question unanswered: Can we use this insight to project greater power? Could you manipulate your writing style to come across as more sure of yourself 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.
But that doesn't mean you can't use this surprising truth about pronouns at all. 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?