How Your Pronoun Use Reflects Your Investment at Work and Even Your Health
Want to find out how invested an employee is in a job? Ask him how his day went and count his pronoun usage? Want to have a good idea how likely someone is to survive in the months following his heart attack? Ask him how he’s dealing with things and count his pronouns. The sorts of pronoun the person uses and the frequency of them can give you ALL SORTS of useful information.
James W. Pennebaker has written a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, and it’s intriguing stuff. (That last line has a joke referenced towards Pennebaker, the author, who I doubt will ever read this post, but if he does, he might get it). There’s so much interesting stuff in this book, I may do more than one post on it. We’ll see. The book, overall, is about the process of language, rather than the content, and how much of ourselves we reveal, unwittingly, simply by doing that most human of activities, talking. Even when all we do is talk about something as minor as how our day went, we expose our secret attitudes, beliefs, upbringing, and health.
Ask people about their day at work. Ignore all the boring content of what they say, such as what they had for lunch and how messy their desk is and how annoying the secretary is (or is not!). Instead, pay attention to that lowly function word, the pronoun. If they use the pronoun “I” and “my” a lot, they have a reasonable investment in their job. Things are ok when someone talks about “my office.” When someone talks about “our office” and uses the tiny little pronoun “we” a lot when talking about work, they are much more invested in their work and the corporate atmosphere. They’ll work harder and probably call in sick a lot less. Thus, companies want to be the sort of organization that sports a big “We-ness.” The nastiest place to work is somewhere that the employees drop into third person: “the company” and “they” pronouns indicate a bad atmosphere, though I’d probably bet “Those people at the company” would be worse.
Pennebaker cites that airline crews that standardly use “we” have fewer accidents (Pay Attention, Airline Passengers Of The World!), and heart patients who, when talking about their health, use “we” a lot are much more likely to survive on the long term. In other words, usage of that tiny little word can indicate the likelihood you’ll survive the flight cross country to visit Grandma or your next health crisis! Thus, these words are important to pay attention to.
I’ve known some of this concept and used it in my own practice for years, though I never had the stats to back it. I had a fellow come in who was talking about his life and he mentioned going somewhere with “the girlfriend.” I asked him, “So, how long have you and she been having problems?” and he looked startled (and suspicious!) and said, “What makes you think we’re having problems? I never said that.” “Actually, you did,” I said. “When a man refers to his girlfriend or wife as “the girlfriend” or “the wife,” there’s someone going on to distance her from him. Turned out, he and she had been arguing quite a bit and he was wondering if it was worth staying with her. He had not told anyone of this and thought he was keeping it a secret from everyone, yet, because he couldn’t pay attention to ALL his communication, it wasn’t really a secret at all!
Pennebaker is careful to say that he does not think changing your pronoun usage will change your internal state. He’s quite emphatic that you need to do other work to reshape your attitudes and priorities and that, if you do that, your language usage will change on its own, naturally. This is, of course, where getting some external advice/coaching can be useful. A company that has no “we-ness,” one filled with employees who talk about “they” and “the company” should bring in a consultant and be prepared to make some powerful changes, or they will be stuck with high turnover rates, high sick rates, and probably a lot lower productivity. A man who catches himself referring to his wife as “the wife” or who has no sense of a group of people being truly with him while he struggles with a health problem should get some coaching on how to improve his relationships. Not doing so could potentially have nasty consequences.
Oh, and if you’re getting onto an airplane and you hear the stewardess mention “That man in the cockpit,” turn around, walk off, and cash in your ticket. You might just save your life!