When you are interviewing someone for a job, either for a “permanent” position or temporary one, do you monitor how – and how many times – the candidate uses the words “I” “we” and “they?” Do you have a metric for it? Place much significance in it? Pay attention or care at all? Professor James W. Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, says you should care.
Professor Pennebaker’s research isn’t new, but I just came across it recently in a Harvard Business Review post. It made me think, and it made me more aware of how others use personal pronouns.
For example, I was reading the sports page in the local newspaper about NFL quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. He just passed the 40,000-yard passing mark and is on pace to surpass the all-time NFL record for most passing yards in a season. His response when asked about the record by a sportswriter following last week’s game? “I’m aware that we’re close.”
Catch that we reference? Of course when you are depending on some very large men to protect your life and limbs from other large men who want to use your head to drill for oil, it might be a bit self-serving to want to share the credit.
Anyway, in the 1990s, Pennebaker helped develop a computer program that counted and categorized words. He made a distinction between “content” words, words which convey meaning, and “function” words, words that have little real meaning on their own, but merely serve to express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence.
Still with me? Pennebaker analyzed 400,000 different pieces of text, from essays by college students to online chat room discussions and press conference transcripts. He concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.
Pennebaker says there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. “Content words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs—convey the guts of communication. They’re how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language,” Pennebaker told the Harvard Business Review.
But do they really reveal something useful about the speaker? Pennebaker says they can in fact tell us the state of a person’s emotions, as well as their personality, age and social class. Really. Here’s an example Professor Pennebaker used in the Harvard Business Review post he wrote.
“If someone uses the pronoun ‘I,’ it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks ‘What’s the weather outside?’ You could answer ‘It’s hot’ or ‘I think it’s hot.’ The ‘I think’ may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word ‘I’ much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use ‘I’ much more frequently.”
So how does it pertain to an interview situation? Professor Pennebaker answers, “I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as ‘we’ or ‘they’? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says ‘It’s hot’ rather than ‘I think it’s hot’ may be a better fit.”
“I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as ‘we’ or ‘they’? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says ‘It’s hot’ rather than ‘I think it’s hot’ may be a better fit.”
It would be interesting to know whether the results of a similar study would be any different if conducted today. One of the trends in writing and speaking, as we become more cryptic and time-crunched, is that many people eliminate the subject entirely. As in, “Hope you’re well.” ”See you figured that out.” ”Feeling better today?”
Are you buying this at all? Does what Professor Pennebaker opines about the use of personal pronouns resonate?
I would like, no make that we would like, to hear from those of you who interview candidates consistently whether this is even on your radar, and if after reading the article, you feel it should be.