How the Words We Use Reveal Who We Are

An interview with social psychologist James Pennebaker

Posted Mar 21, 2014

James Pennebaker is an American social psychologist and the Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker's groundbreaking research focuses on the relationship between language, health, and social behavior, "how everyday language reflects basic social and personality processes. A pioneer of writing therapy, he has spent decades examining the link between language and recovering from trauma, and been recognized by the American Psychological Association as one of the top researchers on trauma, disclosure, and health. His books include, Opening up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others, Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, and The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. 

MM: Why do you think that language is such a healing medium for people?

JP: Language changes the way information is organized in our minds and is a really powerful way of structuring our world. When we have a traumatic or upsetting experience, it touches every part of our lives and it’s incredibly complex. It influences everything, our daily plans, what we eat, where we go, our financial status and how we interpret relationships. What talking, writing, or putting these experiences into language does is simplify things. It forces some kind of organizational scheme or framework to it. Once we put these things into words, we’re capable of getting through that event more simply, effectively and efficiently.

MM: Because the simplification creates a path?

JP: What simplification does is speed up normal organizational processes. What I mean is, when we have an upsetting experience, what we naturally do is just think about it. We ruminate because it’s our brain’s way of telling us we’re dealing with a complex issue and we’re trying to understand it. When we don’t put it into words, it’s hard to bring about understanding because there are so many moving parts.

For example, if I’ve had a very humiliating experience I’ll find myself walking down the street and that incident will come into my mind. I’ll immediately think about it and then try to push it out of my mind. I’ll stop and think, okay, now I’m going to try to logically organize what happened because it’s just too complex. If I talk or write about it, I’m forced to do that.

MM: Is there a difference between talking about it and writing about it?

JP: Yes and no. By definition, talking about it involves a social process. The big complication is that it means there are two or more people involved so a lot depends on how the listener responds. If a listener is all accepting, listens, asks questions, summarizes what’s been said, and doesn’t judge harshly, then I think talking can be as good as or even better than writing. But there is the cost. Because a person could be judgmental or critical or since there is a chance you could hurt their feelings, there’s a serious risk that you could lose your relationship with that person because they don’t approve of you, what you did or who you are.

MM: Right, whereas if you’re writing to yourself, you have a semi-reliable listener.

JP: Exactly.

MM: You stress that it is not enough to just write about negative experiences on paper. We must write about the feelings themselves. Is that correct?

JP: Yes. It is about writing an honest account and understanding of what happened. This includes your emotions and feelings, how you’re interpreting it.

MM: So interpretation is just as important as venting.

JP: Precisely. In fact, I don’t think dumping it out by itself is helpful. I think being honest about your feelings and acknowledging your feelings is really important. So is understanding what has happened.

MM: Until we have some understanding, there is no transformation or healing?

JP: I think there’s less.

MM: When we write our story, does that give us the opportunity to reframe it?

JP: I think so. A good story is one that structures the event. It provides meaning to it. There’s now a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s put in a way that’s understandable to others as well as to yourself. It is a really effective way of coming to terms with something. But the controversy is, are all stories equally good? In other words, if I come up with a story that’s completely self-deluded, is that a problem? There’s less research on that and I think most clinicians and researchers would be a little concerned if a story is self-deluded and objectively not true. But there’s just not good science on that.

MM: I’m interested in how writing helps us change perspective and see life through a wider angle.

JP: I think you’re right. I think that’s definitely true.

MM: What kind of research are you doing these days?

JP: I’m doing all sorts of work, looking at the nature of language and how the words we use in everyday language reflect who we are, our psychological states. It actually grew out of this work on how people write about traumas and trying to figure out if there is a healthy way to write versus ways that are not healthy.

So, it’s taken me into a world of computational linguistics and words and looking at how it’s just as important to appreciate not only what you say but how you say it. It tells us if we’re being honest with ourselves and others and how we are connecting to others. You can discern these things by analyzing the use of pronouns or prepositions and articles, things that we usually ignore in everyday speech.

MM: Could you give us an insight or glimpse into what you’re finding?

JP: Well, when people are deceptive, for example, either self-deceptive or deceiving others, they tend to use the word I much less than when they’re telling the truth. So a person who is really exploring how they’re feeling in their writing use the word I, me, and my at high rates whereas if they’re being more psychologically distant they try to remove themselves from the topic or from the setting.

MM: I wonder what that would imply, perhaps a more non-fiction approach to reporting a personal experience?

JP: This probably gets back to this issue of what’s psychologically healthy. The person who is not self-reflective tends to push it all out on others, saying things like, Well, he did this because he wanted such and such. They’re not turning inward. The sign of healthy therapy, and also healthy writing, is the ability to look at both itself but also at others.

MM: It sounds so simple

JP:  But it's not.