“The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The ways people use pronouns, articles, and other everyday words are linked to their personality, honesty, social skills and intentions.”
So says James W. Pennebaker, internationally recognized social psychologist and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us.” Of course, when we scan a passage of text, or even listen to something with only partial attention, our brains tend to grab the nouns, verbs and adjectives because they give us the most information about things like subject and context. Pennebaker’s work, however, delves into a writer or speaker’s use of pronouns (I, you, we, they), articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (to, for, on, over), those small little words that the scanner jumps over but that, according to Pennebaker, can reveal many things about a person.
In his studies he finds that, on a basic level, writing can reveal things like age, gender and socioeconomic position. But, further examination contains information about personality, leadership and confidence, depression and sadness, honesty and group solidarity. He calls the scale for measuring these aspects of language, LSM (linguistic style matching) and he has done quite a bit of looking at poetry, celebrity tweets, letters, blogs, conversations and presidential speeches to find where the speakers and authors fall on the LSM continuum.
What’s really interesting is that you can go and take some of the exercises that Pennebaker has online. You can take the Perceptual Style test where you write about an everyday object for 5 minutes, the Projective test, where you write about a picture or drawing for 10 minutes, the I-test where you reveal how well you understand the use of the word “I” in everyday language, and others. I took a few of his tests and was surprised at some of my results, especially my writing on the everyday object exercise.
I love the study of language. When I was an English undergraduate, one of the classes I took was a basic linguistics class. For the most part, it was a fluff class but I was fascinated by things like varied regional terms for the same object (pan vs. skillet, bag vs. sack, soda vs. pop), the ways that verbs are manipulated by people depending on where they live, and how language morphs and changes over time, even making some things that are grammatically incorrect acceptable. I am also a true lover of stories and I find it amazing that there are certain folks who can captivate a room, keeping an audience hanging on their every word and then there are those who speak and, inadvertently, let every mind wander away. The notion that these small, little words could have something really big to do with making that storytelling magic is pretty cool.
TRY THIS WEEK: Take one of Pennebaker’s tests and see what it tells you about you!