- Research suggests that pronoun use offers a window into emotional and relational states.
- A study showed a correlation between depression and an increase in the use of "I-words."
- Researchers also found that increased use of "we-words" indicates a greater focus on community.
Remember the last time you disagreed with someone? How many times did you hurl an accusatory ‘you’ at them? Or did 'me' and 'I' take center stage? These little function words can be surprisingly powerful in personal relationships.
We often hear advice about our own feelings and use 'I' statements in personal conflicts, but does this carry over into other contexts? What does using a pronoun tell people about us when we aren’t yelling at each other?
Beyond being part of how we negotiate our way through relationships, pronoun choice has been found to pattern in ways that predicted things as varied as one’s mental health, marital satisfaction, and response to traumatic stressors.
The Psychology of Pronouns
Working with several colleagues, psychologist James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, found that how we use pronouns and various other function words provides a surprisingly good assessment of people’s psychological states.
For instance, several studies showed that ‘I’-talk often co-occurs with depression. In examining essays written by college students, Rude, Gortner, and Pennebaker (2004) found that depressed students used more I-words (I, me) than non-depressed students. And, in a study looking at the poetry of poets who committed suicide compared to non-suicidal poets, Stirman and Pennebaker (2001) found higher rates of I-words, which the researchers suggest shows that these poets were more intensely inward or self-focused.
But using more 'I' words doesn’t always mean you are depressed, especially when in social interactions that involve differences in relative status or increased social connectivity. For example, commiserating with a friend will often bring out the ‘we’ and ‘you’ in all of us, i.e., “Why don’t we go have dinner, and you can tell me all about it.” But talking to someone about something you need for a project will likely necessitate a shift to 'I.' In other words, different contexts require different pronouns, but a measurable shift in one’s pronouns from ‘we’ to ‘I’ appears to signal something about one’s emotional state.
Examining patterns of pronoun use in this way can help us understand how people deal with the impact of large-scale catastrophic or personally challenging events.
In examining shifts in pronoun use after the 9/11 attacks in both conversational data and internet chats/posts, researchers discovered that there was a notable decrease in the use of 'I' pronouns and a corresponding increase in the use of 'we’ pronouns, mirroring the sense of belonging and shared emotional experience that the attack inspired (Cohn, Mehl, and Pennebaker 2004). In other words, people became more focused on being part of a larger community and on how this tragic experience connected them to others.
This sense of affiliation and belonging, as reflected in the increase in the first-person plural ‘we’ when dealing with tragic events, seems to correlate with better mental health outcomes. For instance, increased use of ‘we’ among students co-occurred with a drop in visits to a university health center for several weeks after a college campus-based tragedy (i.e., Gortner & Pennebaker 2003).
Marriages also seem to benefit from the we-focused discourse. Studies of marital satisfaction show that couples who use more second-person plural pronouns like we or us report greater satisfaction than couples who use more I-words (Sillars et al 1997). This is not surprising if we think of ‘we’ as reflecting a view of ourselves as part of a team rather than as individuals.
But, in a romantic break-up or personally stressful time, a shift to using more self-focused 'I' appears to help people situate themselves relative to the break-up or stressor. When a destabilizing event occurs — whether in one’s romantic or professional life — an increase in the use of ‘I’ seems to track with one’s processing of the event and their shifting identity relative to it (Blackburn, K., Brody, N., & LeFebvre, L. 2014).
Research on private accounts of romantic dissolution found that the use of ‘other’ focused pronouns like the third-person pronouns she and he increases. This is not so surprising. After all, when we break up with someone, the relationship narrative is usually focused on how the individual (how ‘I’) felt, acted, or moved on in post-breakup accounts, at least in private reflections on the break-up. And, rather than signaling one is moving on, the same study suggested that using more ‘we’ pronouns after a break up might indicate difficulty in adjusting to a relationship’s end.
The Power of a Pronoun
'I' and 'we' are quietly working for us behind the scenes. Shifts in an individual’s pronoun use over time appear to be a good indicator of emotional health, community connectedness, and relationship status. So, in the end, what at first might seem like innocuous little words deserve a little more attention. As Taylor Swift so eloquently shares in her song “ME!,” “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me.’” But maybe it would be better to recognize that there is also a ‘we.’
Blackburn, K., Brody, N., & LeFebvre, L. (2014). The I’s, we’s, and she/he’s of breakups: Public and private pronoun usage in relationship dissolution accounts. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(2), 202–213.
Chung, C., & Pennebaker, J. (2007). The Psychological Functions of Function Words. In K. Fiedler (Ed.), Frontiers of social psychology. Social communication. Psychology Press. 343–359.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. Bloomsbury Press/Bloomsbury Publishing.
Sillars, Alan, Wesley Shellen, Anne McIntosh & Maryann Pomegranate (1997) Relational characteristics of language: Elaboration and differentiation in marital conversations. Western Journal of Communication, 61:4, 403-422.