“An I-word Salad”

This post originally appeared on Peachleaves blog.

A friend sent me this link to an article about a psychologist’s study of pronoun use:  The Secret Language Code

In brief, the study notes the frequency with which speakers or writers use different pronouns (first person singular words like I, me, my vs. first person plural words like we, us, our) and different kinds of verbs (specifically, “cognitive” words like believe, think, or reason).  The frequency of first person singular pronouns and cognitive verbs was consistently linked to a number of social differences, many of which surprised the researchers.  For example, the lead researcher noted that in his correspondence with students, the students tended to use a lot more first-person pronouns, while his own replies to them were cool and detached with nary an I-statement in sight.  His Emails to his dean, though, were “an I-word salad.”  Women tend to use more first-person pronouns and cognitive verbs than men – a claim that painfully recalled numerous female undergraduate students of mine who could not be talked out of starting thesis statements with “I believe.”

The lede uses the term “secret” since we tend not to notice these surprisingly frequent and consistent gender and social differences; “code” is not quite the right word since we’re not consciously decoding the message, but nonetheless these speech patterns can be linked to meaning.  I appreciate that the researchers seem disinclined to frame their findings as hard-wiring in the brain; they do even point out that “men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently,” an equitable behavior-based claim.

But I do think it’s odd that the linked article presented the information that women use more first-person pronouns and cognitive verbs, and that individuals with lower social status in a given conversation use more first-person pronouns and cognitive verbs. . . but neither the researcher nor the writer went further to make an obvious claim about what that suggests about the status of women in this world we negotiate.

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