The Secret Life of PronounsThe Secret Life of Pronouns:
What Our Words Say About Us

By James W. Pennebaker

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1
Discovering the Secret Life
of the Most Forgettable Words

Good morning everyone! Have a fabulous day! Xoxo Paris :)
-Paris Hilton, media personality

went to the mountains above Beirut yesterday to meet with Walid
Jumblatt--the leader of the Druze---fascinating experience.

-John McCain, U.S. Senator

Hanging out with friends--"pom" martinis--getting ready to watch xmas
special. 10 eastern 9 central. Going caroling afterward!

-Oprah Winfrey, media mogul and television host

time to drink a bottle of wine and sketch for the new tour. st.louis was brilliant.
there's eyeliner on my knee, and blood on my elbow. shady

-Lady Gaga, singer and songwriter

Over 100,000 years ago, our ancestors began talking. About
5,000 years ago, humans started writing. In the last 150 years, we
adopted everything from the telegraph, radio, and television to e-mail,
text messages, blogs, and other social media. The ways we connect with
one another may have changed but we still are compelled to communicate
our ideas, experiences, and emotions to those around us.

Beginning in 2006, we began to use Twitter. Anyone with a Twitter
account can broadcast brief updates, or "tweets," that can be instantly
read by almost anyone. On a minute-by-minute basis, you can know
what your friends or even world- famous celebrities are thinking. Many
readers may wonder why people would want to do this. However, once
you immerse yourself in the Twitter world, you can begin to appreciate
some of its appeal.

Look back at the four tweets that begin this chapter. On a certain
level, these tweets are no different from everyday communication. One
can imagine overhearing similar things from someone at the next table
in a restaurant. What are the different people telling others? Paris Hilton
is simply calling out a greeting. John McCain is describing meeting
an important person in Lebanon. Oprah Winfrey tells us about her
plans for the evening. Lady Gaga wants us to know that she is getting
into the spirit of her new tour.

But there is more in these tweets than their authors appreciate.
Each entry is like a fingerprint. For example, if this were a multiple-
choice test and people were asked to match the tweet with the author,
most would make a perfect score on the test. Even if you had never
heard of any of the authors, the mere label of “media personality,”
“U.S. senator,” etc. would provide enough information to make educated
guesses about who tweeted what.

The tweets also provide insights into each person’s thinking and
personality. Hilton is relentlessly upbeat with her exclamation points
and emoticons. McCain works to impress his readers with his big
words and worldliness. Winfrey, the consummate salesperson, “drops”
what time the Christmas special (which is actually her Christmas
special) will be aired. And Lady Gaga conveys that she is a bit wild but
also thoughtful and, judging by her use of pronouns, somewhat prone
to depression.

If we started analyzing more tweets from each of these people,
we would begin to get a much richer sense of their motivations, fears,
emotions, and the ways they connect with others and themselves. Each
person uses words in a unique way. Some people, like Lady Gaga, tend
to be highly personal in the ways they communicate— they are self-
re° ective in their use of words such as I and me. Others, like John Mc-
Cain, reveal that they have a great deal of trouble in connecting to
others. In fact, if you would like to try out a quick personality analysis
tool based on peoples’ Twitter feeds, try out the experimental website
that my colleagues and I created, www.analyzewords.com.

Often, some of the most revealing words that we use are the shortest
and most forgettable. Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they), articles
(a, an, the), prepositions (e.g., to, for, over), and other stealth words
broadcast the kind of people we are. And this is the story of this book.
It has been a long road from our ancestors’ uttering their first sentences
to Paris Hilton’s tweeting her greetings. Due in large part to the
current technological revolution, we now have the tools to analyze
tweets and Facebook updates, e-mails, old- fashioned letters and books,
and the words from everyday life. For the first time, we are able to use
computers to determine how everyday words can reflect our social and
psychological states.

Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school
student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is
likely to make lower grades in college? Or that the poet who overuses
the word I in his poetry is at higher risk of suicide? Or that a certain
world leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he’d lead
his country into war? By looking more carefully at the ways people convey
their thoughts in language we can begin to get a sense of their personalities,
emotions, and connections with others.

WHEN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE MEET

Before describing the secret life of words, it may be helpful to say a bit
about the author. That would be me. I’m a social psychologist whose
interest in words came about almost accidentally. As you will see, the
focus of this book is really on people rather than language per se. Words
and language are, of course, fascinating topics. Through the eyes of a
social psychologist, words are even more intriguing as clues to the inner
workings of people.

By way of background, my early career dealt with health, emotions,
and the nature of traumatic experiences. In the early 1980s, I stumbled
on a finding that fascinated me. People who reported having a
terrible traumatic experience and who kept the experience a secret
had far more health problems than people who openly talked about their
traumas. Why would keeping a secret be so toxic? More importantly,
if you asked people to disclose emotionally powerful secrets, would
their health improve? The answer, my students and I soon discovered,
was yes.

We began running experiments where people were asked to write
about traumatic experiences for fifteen to twenty minutes a day for three
or four consecutive days. Compared to people who were told to write
about nonemotional topics, those who wrote about trauma evidenced
improved physical health. Later studies found that emotional writing
boosted immune function, brought about drops in blood pressure, and
reduced feelings of depression and elevated daily moods. Now, over
twenty-five years after the first writing experiment, more than two hundred
similar writing studies have been conducted all over the world.
While the effects are often modest, the mere act of translating emotional
upheavals into words is consistently associated with improvements in
physical and mental health.

Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Press.

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