Most of us underestimate the significance of the pronouns we use most frequently in our daily lives. But, pronouns matter. New research suggests that whether you engage in lots of “I-talk” or more “we-talk” could be an indicator of proneness to distress and negative emotionality or healthy interdependence in a romantic relationship, respectively.
“I-talk” refers to the frequent use of first-person singular pronouns, such as “I,” “me,” and “mine” when writing or speaking. “We-talk” refers to the frequent use of first-person plural pronouns such as “we,” “us,” and “ours.”
Earlier this year, a study from the University of Arizona reported that excessive “I-talk” was an accurate linguistic marker for the likelihood that someone was more prone to general distress and a wide array of negative emotions. (For more see, “Stressed Out? Too Much “I-Talk” Could Be Part of the Problem.”)
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Now, the largest-ever analysis of “we-talk” used by romantic partners suggests that the frequent use of “we” and “us” is linked to happier and healthier relationships. This paper, “Meta-Analytic Evidence that We-Talk Predicts Relationship and Personal Functioning in Romantic Couples,” was recently published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For their meta-analysis of we-talk, researchers at the University of California, Riverside examined the findings of 30 different studies involving over 5,000 participants. This extensive analysis of we-talk was conducted by Megan Robbins and her OBSERVE (Observation of Social Exchanges in Real and Virtual Environments) lab colleagues at the UC Riverside Department of Psychology.
While analyzing massive amounts of data, Robbins and her team focused on five measures: (1) relationship outcomes, such as the satisfaction and duration of being together as a couple, (2) relationship behaviors, as marked by the frequency of positive or negative interactions, (3) general mental health, (4) overall physical health, and (5) health behaviors, as indicated by daily lifestyle choices.
“By examining all these studies together, they let us see the bigger picture. We-talk is an indicator of interdependence and general positivity in romantic relationships,” Alexander Karan, a graduate student in Robbins’ lab and first author this paper said in a statement. “The primary takeaway is that interdependence may bring about supportive and relationship-centered behaviors and positive perceptions of the partner — especially important in times of stress and conflict.”
Notably, Karan et al. found that we-talk is helpful for resolving conflicts. Using “we” or “us” is even beneficial when someone’s partner isn’t physically present. Additionally, the frequent use of we-talk appears to benefit the person speaking, but has an even bigger impact on someone’s partner hearing their union referred to collectively as “us.” (As a side note: Writing about pronouns has made me self-conscious about every pronoun I’m using. Should I have said, “their” union or is there a more appropriate pronoun?)
There’s also a chicken-or-the-egg aspect to this research on we-talk. The million-dollar question is: Does we-talk make romantic couples happier or do happy couples tend to use more we-talk?
“It is likely both. Hearing yourself or a partner say these words could shift individuals’ ways of thinking to be more interdependent, which could lead to a healthier relationship,” Robbins said. “However, it could also be the case that because the relationship is healthy and interdependent, the partners are being supportive and use we-talk.”
Future research in Robbins’ lab will do a deeper dive into whether or not advising couples to use more “we-talk” and less “I-talk” can create an upward spiral of healthy interdependence by shifting the focus away from being self-oriented towards being relationship-oriented.
In the meantime, why not try saying “we” more and “me” less? The latest empirical evidence suggests that making a small effort to use fewer first-person singular pronouns such as “I,” “me, and, “mine ” and saying “we,” “us,” and “ours” more frequently might help improve your proneness to positive emotionality and could create a ripple effect of healthy interdependence with others.