Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Secret Life of Pronouns

James Pennebaker's  The Secret Life of Pronouns:

 The most exciting Communication book I have read in 2011!

Professor Pennebaker  shows how pronouns, articles, conjunctions, prepositions and other “small stealthy words reveal parts of your personality, thinking style, emotional state and connections with others (p. ix).” His findings and hypotheses make excellent discussion starters.  Here are five examples.

 1.  “We-words” create less identification between a politician and his audience than “I-words.” John Kerry was advised to use more “we-words” to connect with his voters; poor advice. “We-words” made him appear more distant and arrogant. They are often used by high status persons who presume to speak for others. “I-words” create a less presumptuous basis for rapport. 

2.  Women use the first person singular more than men do.  Men use “articles” more than woman. Apparently, this occurs because men talk more about objects. That is, men are apt to chat about, “the carburetor,” or “a beer,” or “dah-Bears.”  

 3.  Students who use lower rates of personal and impersonal pronouns in their admission essays receive higher grades throughout college.  

 4.  Couples that mirror each other’s pronouns in e-mails have longer lasting relationships.

 5. The style by which college exams are written is predictive of how students will frame their answers. If exam givers write exams in the linguistic style of a “valley girl” they are likely to receive  “valley girl” answers (“Like, it matters?...or, whatever”).  If they write questions with academic lingo, exam givers receive more "erudite responses."
Pennebaker reports “stealth word” findings from many areas of communication: gender, age and cultural differences, interpersonal and group evolution, suicide messages and healing narratives, politics and leadership. Even more intriguing than these discoveries is the methodology by which they are obtained.

Pennebaker and his associates developed a software system, LIWC, for doing electronic content analysis. It counts the number of “stealth word” in documents as near as your last e-mail or as grand as classical literature. LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) can count and categorize the works of Shakespeare in twenty seconds.

An abbreviated form of LIWC is provided on Pennebaker’s web page for free. Try it.  
I encourage you to purchase The Secret Life of Pronouns. Pennebaker is a conversational writer. The research examples you can use in class are abundant.

Dr. Pennebaker' website provides

additional content analysis tools for class assignments. 

(For a more comprehensive review of The Secret Life of Pronouns read Dan Zimmer's NY Times article)

Northwestern University where I received an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion