There was an interesting story on NPR this morning on how sentence structure reveals a lot of about relationships. A psychologist named James Pennebaker used computers to scan conversations between people, and one of the things he discovered is that you can tell who is high-status and who is low-status in a conversation just by looking at their use of the word “I.”
For example, if you are the lowly underling and you’re emailing your boss, you use the word “I” a lot:
“I was looking at the reports and I think we might drop the Smith account. I’d like to talk to you about them on Monday.”
But when the boss replies, she rarely if ever uses the word “I”:
“That’s fine, but Monday’s no good. Tuesday works.”
Pennebaker’s explanation is that low-status people feel insecure and self-conscious, and their inward focus makes them use the word “I” more.
Respectfully, I think there’s another reason for this. It’s not about being self-conscious. It’s about being extremely conscious — of power.
When I was at Andover and Harvard, men still outnumbered the women students by a slight majority, and the female students rarely had the same “to the manor born” self-assurance that I saw in some of the men. Some male students clearly perceived themselves as high-status, or at least high-status-in-waiting.
Often I engaged in friendly lunchtime debates with these guys, but it was an uphill battle. I was constantly interrupted and contradicted:
Me: “Women are still not equal in society…”
Some Dude: “That’s not true! I happen to know a woman who’s a CEO and who’s very successful! Where’s your data to back up your argument?”
I got shouted down all the time. Even when we discussed innocuous topics, like music and art, I got a lot of flak. Simple comments like “She’s a great actress” or “That was an excellent movie” got contradicted, interrupted, or minimized.
Subconsciously, I started to defend myself against the constant onslaught by couching all of my opinions in extremely personal language. So, instead of saying, “She’s such a brilliant actress,” I started saying, “I really like that actress.” After all, you can’t really contradict someone else’s opinion.
It took me years to realize what was happening at a conscious level. These guys weren’t jumping down my throat because they disagreed with my opinions per se. They were jumping down my throat because I was daring to express my opinions as declarative statements.
In other words, if you say, “This situation is appalling!” it translates to “I am a free and equal member of this society, and my opinion carries just as much weight as anyone else’s.”
However, if you say, “I am really upset by this situation” it also has a translation: “I am a supplicant in this community, and I am presenting my case to those with power in the hopes that they will hear me.”
Anyone who makes an opinion into a declarative statement is stating that they have the right to define the universe according to their own point of view. And that is an incredible declaration of power.
Subconsciously, most of us know this, and so we vary our own choice to use declarative statements based on our perception of the power dynamic. So, this way of speaking is not an irrational reaction to our own insecurities, but rather an extremely rational response to a given situation.
So one way of perceiving who has the power is, Who gets to make the declarative statements?
Which members of the team get to say “This will never work,” and which have to say, “I don’t think we can do it in that time frame?”
Who gets to say, “This interface is clunky” and who has to say “The home page doesn’t feel right to me?”
It’s all about power.
Interesting topic and points. You post resonates with me because I am aware that I frequently frame opinions on my blog and in comments threads with “I think” and “I believe.” I do this to avoid sounding didactic. With the lack of inflection and tone in written communication, statements can sound blunt and instructional. I don’t consider myself low-status or high-status. At least regarding the blogging community, I like to think we are all partners in ideas and conversation.*
Some Dude sounds like a bore. Anyone who thinks an anecdote equals evidence isn’t worthy of your conversation, and I say that as a declarative statement.
*ironically, my most recent post is an “I’m tired of being supportive of people wallow in self-pity” essay, so I may not be backing up my previous statement all that well today!
I really like your comment! I also use “I” statements very frequently when I write. After all, if you write autobiographical essays, it’s pretty hard to do so without the use of the word “I!” So it’s not that every use of the word “I” involves status or power — context is important as well.
Teaching is a great example of this. The best teachers, while achieving mastery in a given subject, also have a deep humility. They always see themselves as beginners, and they are open to learning from their own students. In this case, their humility helps the students to feel safe enough to explore the material, and connect with their teacher, rather than feeling distanced.
So, in other words, this essay is the beginning of the conversation, and brings up as many questions as answers.