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What Words Say … About Us?

Recent interesting reading in the Harvard Business Review supports the sound advice — choose your words carefully — if you can. Say what?

In computer-assisted research over the past couple of decades, Professor James Pennebacker, author of the The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us, has determined that words like pronouns say big things about a person’s stability and honesty, among other things. In fact, his research reveals that these words actually say more than “content words.” That means words we usually throw around to connect what we are trying to express — such as pronouns and prepositions really say a great deal about us.

Professor Pennebacker explains his research quite powerfully. He says “function” words are more socially bound than other content words. And he says that we really cannot control the way we use these words, they just happen and are difficult to track without the use of computer analytics.

One example given is a simple sentence with lots of pronouns. ” ‘I don’t think I buy it’ ” reveals a focus on self, but ” ‘That’s ridiculous’ ” doesn’t. The Professor also explains what happens when a person lies. Perhaps these words are a way to couch their real feelings? So that use of the word “we” is used more often than “I.” And when we are being more honest, we use words such as “but” and “without.”

The Professor also notes that in researching the use of words, he did not anticipate this result. He says ” ‘In study after study, we kept finding the same thing … it was the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other function words that made a difference, not the content words.’ ”

Not only does the research reveal that our brains react differently to function words, but they are more tied to emotional state and other revealing factors such as social standing and personality. These subtleties are not easy to discern without applying computer analysis to language. Who knew that we reveal so much in the little connectors “we” used to think weren’t so important.

Choosing pronouns carefully, “I” commend the HBR piece as good, interesting and unexpected reading.

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