Do the pronouns we use reveal more about us than we realize? According to University of Texas psychology professor James Pennebaker, the number of times the pronoun “I” is used statistically correlates to a person’s level of depression and their social status.
The research asserts that a higher use of “I” statements can signify higher levels of depression and lower status levels. Pennebaker and his team analyzed transcripts and found depressed people used “I” 6.5% of the time compared to 4% for non-depressed people. When compared between gender, guess who used “I” more often? Women.
The researchers acknowledged another difference between men and women was that women tended to be more self-aware and inward-focused while men were more outward focused and described objects more than feelings. However, the research wasn’t focused on gender differences as much as it was focused on indications of insecurity. I find this fascinating. (Use of “I” inserted on purpose.)
For anyone that has ever been to couples’ therapy or sat through workplace conflict resolution trainings, one of the first lessons given is to decrease “you-statements” and increase “I-statements.” This is supposed to help decrease blaming while increasing self-awareness and personal responsibility.
“You-statements” tend to escalate conflict by triggering our shame and defensive reactions. Instead of blaming, psychotherapists suggest reframing the blame with an “I-statement” that is based on one’s personal feelings over what the other person did.
The suggested reframe might go something like this:
Instead of, “You broke the computer,” try “The computer is broken and I’m scared we won’t meet our deadline.”
Instead of, “You make me angry,” try “I’m feeling upset and want to understand what we can do to fix this.”
Instead of, “You are incapable of understanding,” try “I’m feeling lonely and scared because I can’t seem to communicate in a way that gets us closer.”
These reframes can make a person more vulnerable and open. It generally decreases conflict and drives people to connect with each other in a safer, closer way—especially when all parties use “I-statements”. The problem occurs when a person is being vulnerable and using “I-statements” in a culture that views it as a weakness or some form of narcissism.
Like all things, there is a delicate balance. It can be very narcissistic to always focus on your own feelings without taking stock of how others are feeling. Constantly talking about yourself can form the antithesis of connection and one of the reasons the “selfie generation” gets a bad reputation for overly focusing on self-promotion in social media instead of listening and being present to those around them.
I was at a talk the other day where a brilliant and inspiring speaker said people say “I” and too much and gave advice to say “you” more often. He pointed to text messages and urged people to count the number of times “I” is used and replace it with “you” instead. Giving someone praise with a “you” statement is a no-brainer (“YOU are awesome!” “Thinking about YOU.” “YOU’re the best!). I suspect his point was to help people decrease self-centeredness by focusing on the other person, yet I found myself wincing and wondering if people would misunderstand and use “you” in a blaming way and/or misinterpreting a person’s attempt at vulnerability when they use reflective “I” in their messages.
Another component to the use of plentiful use of “I” can be found in Richard Wiseman’s research that discovered people who tell the truth will precede their statement with “I” whereas people who are lying will omit “I” from their claim.
Gets confusing, doesn’t it? Try analyzing someone’s text with these contradictions. They wrote “Love you” instead of “I love you.” Are they purposely trying to be less “I”-centric or are they lying? Or maybe they are being concise and using the least amount of characters.
Funny enough, Trump’s use of “I-statements” in his first State of the Union address was measured. He used “I” 29 times and “me” once. In contrast, President Obama’s 2010 speech used “I” 88 times and “we” ten times. A conservative may use these numbers to point out how many times Trump used “we” over “I” and suggest Obama is more narcissistic for using “I” so many times. A liberal reporter may suggest the very opposite.
What’s the takeaway? One suggestion is to find out what your significant other, friends, family, and/or colleagues think about the use of “I-statements” and find a way that mutually works for you, where you can understand each other and better respond to each other with respect and compassion over defensiveness and conflict.