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The Power of a "We"

Choosing the right pronoun can be the ultimate power move.

Key points

  • Pronouns help us negotiate power and status.
  • The pronoun use of leaders and politicians has been shown to impact their success.
  • Using "we" vs. "I" points to different social different goals.

Pronouns have long been at the crux of heated debate and social reform—not only in terms of how we express gender, but also how our usage reveals how we relate to one another.

In looking at pronoun choice in a variety of high-stakes contexts, psychologists and linguists have discovered that our pronoun patterns reveal a lot about how we express power and social status.

The Pronouns of a Leader

Looking at the way pronouns pattern in the speech of higher status vs. lower status participants in interactions, particularly those in an employment context, psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues found that those who took on leadership roles used fewer first-person singular words (I, me, my) and more plural words (we, our, they), while those in subordinate roles used I-words more.

This may at first seem surprising, as using "I" might seem to be the ultimate power word—as in “I expect” or “I need.” But as anyone trying to effectively parent or supervise has learned, telling someone what they need to do by couching in it terms of what you want rarely works. Instead, to build a team, to motivate people, you have to convince people you are in it together and that it benefits them as well as you. So, welcome to the world of "we" and "us," rather than "I."

Political Pronouns

Since using "we" more than "I" seems to carry with it a sense of collective experience and a correlation with leadership, politicians have, not surprisingly, jumped quickly on that rhetorical bandwagon.

A study that examined campaign speeches of Australian Prime Ministerial candidates found that the candidates who were victorious used more inclusive "we" and "us" pronouns than those who lost in 80 percent of all elections. What's more, a series of data analyses for the "Language Log" blog run by the University of Pennsylvania Professor Mark Liberman found that there has been a clear increase in second person plural pronoun usage across presidential State of the Union addresses since World War II.

Geralt/Pixabay
Why do we choose me or we?
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

This research suggests that we prefer leaders whose linguistic behavior indicates that they see themselves as "one of us" and socially identify as part of a collective rather than those who set themselves apart through the use of self-referring pronouns. However, this bent toward preferring political leaders who prioritize social connectedness rather than exceptionality and unique experience does not seem to have always been the case, with this increasing preference for use of inclusive "we" and "us" found only in presidential speeches over the last century.

So the "I"s Don’t Have It?

Of course, first-person pronoun use (e.g., I or me) is not negative; it may simply reflect a status difference or an awareness of the language that is appropriate to get things done in different contexts. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of how our use of pronouns comes across.

When taking on positions that require managing people and achieving group goals, whether in a boardroom or as a family unit, we tend to shift toward using words that signal inclusivity and highlight connectedness. In contrast, when trying to please someone higher in status or more focused on a specific role we’re performing, we use more “I” words—as in “I did X” or “I am trying to Y.”

And not all ‘I’ is created equal, as Dr. Pennebaker’s work suggests—sometimes "I" can express narcissism (as in I need or I want X), but just as often it can also express politeness or softening (e.g., I hope or I think X), something often required from those in subordinate positions. Likewise, the "we" pronoun can also be used in ways that highlight separation and division. For instance, when working within departments or groups that define a "we" in opposition, not in concert with, other groups, rather than seeing themselves working toward shared goals—i.e., the royal "We" used by lofty kings and queens ruling over their subjects.

In short, though, we do find clear patterns that indicate advantages in using more other-focused pronouns. For instance, in a computational analysis of speech in mock job interviews, Naim et al (2018) found that using more inclusive or outward-focused pronouns such as "we" and "they" was viewed more positively and as friendlier in ratings of job interview performance than using higher rates of “I” pronouns.

All of this research suggests a benefit from increasing awareness of our pronoun patterns especially in high stakes contexts, be it a job interview or broaching a delicate topic with a spouse or a teenager.

References

Naim, I., Tanveer, M.I., Gildea, D., & Hoque, M. (2018). Automated Analysis and Prediction of Job Interview Performance. IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, 9, 191-204.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. Bloomsbury Press/Bloomsbury Publishing.

Pennebaker, J. (2017). Mind mapping: Using everyday language to explore social & psychological processes. Procedia Computer Science, 118, 100-107.

Steffens NK, Haslam SA (2013). Power through ‘Us’: Leaders’ Use of We-Referencing Language Predicts Election Victory. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77952.

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