Pronouns have long been at the crux of heated debate and social reform—not only in terms of how we express gender, but also how our usage reveals how we relate to one another.
In looking at pronoun choice in a variety of high-stakes contexts, psychologists and linguists have discovered that our pronoun patterns reveal a lot about how we express power and social status.
The Pronouns of a Leader
Looking at the way pronouns pattern in the speech of higher status vs. lower status participants in interactions, particularly those in an employment context, psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues found that those who took on leadership roles used fewer first-person singular words (I, me, my) and more plural words (we, our, they), while those in subordinate roles used I-words more.
This may at first seem surprising, as using “I” might seem to be the ultimate power word—as in “I expect” or “I need.” But as anyone trying to effectively parent or supervise has learned, telling someone what they need to do by couching in it terms of what you want rarely works. Instead, to build a team, to motivate people, you have to convince people you are in it together and that it benefits them as well as you. So, welcome to the world of “we” and “us,” rather than “I.”
Since using “we” more than “I” seems to carry with it a sense of collective experience and a correlation with leadership, politicians have, not surprisingly, jumped quickly on that rhetorical bandwagon.
A study that examined campaign speeches of Australian Prime Ministerial candidates found that the candidates who were victorious used more inclusive “we” and “us” pronouns than those who lost in 80 percent of all elections. What’s more, a series of data analyses for the “Language Log” blog run by the University of Pennsylvania Professor Mark Liberman found that there has been a clear increase in second person plural pronoun usage across presidential State of the Union addresses since World War II.
This research suggests that we prefer leaders whose linguistic behavior indicates that they see themselves as “one of us” and socially identify as part of a collective rather than those who set themselves apart through the use of self-referring pronouns. However, this bent toward preferring political leaders who prioritize social connectedness rather than exceptionality and unique experience does not seem to have always been the case, with this increasing preference for use of inclusive “we” and “us” found only in presidential speeches over the last century.
So the “I”s Don’t Have It?
Of course, first-person pronoun use (e.g., I or me) is not negative; it may simply reflect a status difference or an awareness of the language that is appropriate to get things done in different contexts. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of how our use of pronouns comes across.