Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keep your eye on "I"

I once had a job counselor tell me that in cover letters to a potential employer I should never use the word "I."

I suppose the idea is that the letter should be about the company, not about me. I've found that advice impossible to follow, but maybe I just don't get it.

You may have noticed that I have already used "I" six times. I told you it's not easy. There, I did it again.

Now from the University of Texas comes research about this. People will research just about anything, no?

Well, this work will give you some insight into yourself and others when you're trying to communicate. It should inform the way you write and speak. Keep it in mind, for example, the next time you compose an email.

The research suggests that people who often say "I" are less powerful and less sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the word. Frequent "I" users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they are talking.

Oh boy.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein quotes Dr. James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department.
Pronouns signal where someone's internal focus is pointing, he says. Often, people using "I" are being self-reflective. But they may also be self-conscious or insecure, in physical or emotional pain, or simply trying to please. In five experiments people deemed to have higher status used "I" less.
"There is a misconception that people who are confident, have power, have high-status tend to use 'I' more than people who are low status," he says. "That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself."
People curb their use of "I" subconsciously, Pennebaker says. "If I am the high-status person, I am thinking of what you need to do. If I am the low-status person, I am more humble and am thinking, 'I should be doing this.' "
Pennebaker has found heavy "I" users across many people: Women (who are typically more reflective than men), people who are more at ease with personal topics, younger people, caring people as well as anxious and depressed people. (Surprisingly, he says, narcissists do not use "I" more than others, according to a meta-analysis of a large number of studies.)
All his leads Pennebaker to conclude: "You should use 'I' the same way you use a speedometer on your car -- as feedback on yourself. Are you being genuine? Are you being honest? Learn to adjust some, to know yourself."

I get it.

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