The XX Factor

What Saying “I” Says About You

Am I OK?

Photo by Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

Pop quiz: Who do you think uses the pronoun “I” more, men or women? The powerful or the insecure? Happy people or depressed people?

I would have guessed men, the powerful, and the happy. Aren’t most women conditioned to want to dissolve into the wallpaper, rather than draw attention to themselves? Isn’t it easier for influential people to get drunk on their own importance? Doesn’t contentment often entail embracing, in plain view of the world, the multi-faceted human diamond of you? (“I embrace the multi-faceted human diamond of me!” See?)

But in fact, the opposite is true: Women say “I” more than men; insecure people say it more than those who are confident and assured; melancholy souls say it more than ebullient ones. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “pronouns signal where someone’s internal focus is pointing.” And we pay more attention to ourselves when we are suffering, self-conscious, or eager to please.

These revelations flow from a series of studies carried out at the University of Texas at Austin by James W. Pennebaker, chair of the school’s psychology department and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns. Pennebaker told the Journal that while “the high-status person is looking out at the world,” the “low-status person is looking at himself.” (Fascinatingly, narcissists don’t use personal pronouns any more than the rest of us.) He and his colleagues conducted five related experiments: In the first, they asked 41 groups of four volunteers each to brainstorm about streamlining an imaginary company’s customer service. Each pod had a randomly assigned leader. The researchers found that the leaders used “I” in 4.5 percent of their speech, while the followers salted 5.6 percent of their conversation with “I”s. (This finding rings true: How often has a leader in your workplace talked about what “we” can do to improve the quality of whatever it is your workplace produces? And then you answer, “I don’t know if this has already come up, but I was thinking…”)

Next, 112 students were placed in pairs and told to solve a series of intricate math problems online. At the end, each participant was asked to reflect back on the interaction and decide whether she or her partner had more power and status. Lo and behold, those who accrued fewer dominance points also happened to use “I” more frequently.

Experiment three, which involved 50 pairs of strangers chitchatting about their lives, explored pronoun use in a more social context. After a few minutes of polite back-and-forth, everyone decided who in their dyad wielded the most power. Not only did participants overwhelmingly agree about their relative rankings, but the higher-placed person always said “I” less.

In the fourth study, nine brave volunteers handed over their email correspondences with about 15 other people, specifying in each case who called the shots in the relationship. Again, more dominant people wrote with fewer personal pronouns.

Experiment five saw Pennebaker and his teammates poring over email communications between members of the Iraqi Army. The exchanges were part of a public research effort called the Iraqi Perspectives Project—and in each one, writers of low military rank said “I” (or “أنا”) more than their superiors.

To me, these results confirm that self-consciousness so often comes from a place of insecurity and anxiety. If you’re immersed in the world around you, your attention streams outward; if something isn’t clicking, that’s when you turn in. But strategic use of the word “I” can tell your boss you’re attuned to your responsibilities, or remind a friend that the slightly critical thing you just said about her period shirt is only an opinion. Pennebaker also told the Journal that truthful people were more likely to pepper their speech with “I,” as were the young and reflective. I wonder, too, whether our confessional Internet habits have drawn us irrevocably as a society toward more first-person disclosure.

But why should women belong in this I-spouting band of low-status, off kilter, unhappy people? Do the costs of appearing overconfident remain too high for us? Death knells for the patriarchy aside, are we still at a social disadvantage? I’d like to think women are just reflective, or perhaps on the vanguard of a new, web-inflected type of speech. But something tells me a certain level of self-conscious worry has wormed its way into the experience of modern womanhood. Ai.

Also. I am not blind to the fact that I use the pronoun “I” a whole lot. That distinctive capital letter is holding up this blog post like a row of columns. I like the idea of appearing humble, but I don’t want to seem slavish or mopey, so I think I’ll self-correct by conducting all future conversations in the third person, like a rap star or omniscient narrator. I mean, you can say a lot of things about the Rock and Julius Caesar, but they aren’t lacking in gumption. (I, Claudius, on the other hand…)