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Language Demonstrates Strength, Weakness

The language you use when communicating with others may show how much power you have, or don't have, in a relationship. That is, there are certain phrases you may use that show, even sub-consciously, where you think you stand.

In 2012, National Public Radio examined this phenomenon, and spoke with James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies communication.

According to Pennebaker, it's the small "function words" — the words between important words, like nouns and verbs — that give you away.

Words like this, the, though, I, an, and, that, there.

We don't pay attention to these filler words. They're like the little floaties in your eye. You see them if you look for them, staring into space long enough, but otherwise you never notice them. Also, people will think you're high if you stare like that too long.

Pennebaker says function words are the most interesting ones, not the topic words we talk about, like our families or our job. They convey the substance of what we want to say; our self-esteem and attitudes can be found in these words.

In the early 1990s, Pennebaker and his graduate students created a computer program to analyze massive amounts of data and find the patterns it would take dozens of human beings dozens of years to come up with.

They wanted to know if it was possible to tell if people were lying by their use of function words, whether someone was male or female, or rich or poor. Or if you could tell who had the "superior" role in a relationship and who had the "subordinate" role.

According to Pennebaker, if you perceive yourself to be in a subordinate role — that is, the person you're talking to has more power than you — you're more likely to say "I" a lot.

Let's say you send an email to your neighbor:

Dear Dale, I wanted to see if you could do something about your dog. I am not able to sleep because he barks late at night, which keeps me awake, and I have to get up at 6:00 in the morning. I was wondering if you could put your dog inside after 9:00 at night. That would help me so much. Thank you. Steve.

Your neighbor responds:

Dear Steve: Sorry about the barking. He stays outside at night because he gets antsy after a while in the house. He seems to have a thing going with the Sanderson's poodle, and likes to be outside with her. When they take her inside, he barks. We'll get this taken care of. Thanks. Dale.

Did you see it? Steve put himself in the weaker position. He said "I" four times and "me" twice, while Steve didn't say that at all; he said "we" once. If you read this email, you might guess that Steve doesn't give a crap about Dale, and will instead train his dog and an insomniac rooster to drive past Dale's house in a '76 Chevy Nova with glass pack mufflers.

At a speed dating event, Pennebaker said he could predict who would go on a date more accurately than the people themselves could predict. That's because when two people match, personality-wise, they tend to use pronouns, prepositions, and articles the same way, more frequently.

It's not because similar people are attracted to each other. It's because people who are truly interested in each other will shift their language patterns to more closely align. Sort of a linguist's baby talk. . . if my sweety-weety wittle winguist wiked that sort of thing.

Changing your language won't change who you are, however, he says. "The words reflect who we are more than drive who we are."

But if you want your language to reflect the "you" you'd like to be, there's some truth in the old saying "fake it 'til you make it." It's not just a matter of putting up a brave front until the "successful you" catches up. If you act confident, you'll eventually feel confident. Keep doing it, and one day you find that you have actually become a confident person.

So it goes with your language. Try to avoid using Pennebaker's function words, especially in your emails and texts, to see if you can project a position of strength and power. You might come across as more confident, and you'll be more likely to get what you want, because others will see you as an equal, and not someone in the subordinate role.

On the other hand, you might come across as a big arrogant jerk, and no one will like you, and you'll die unhappy and alone with seven cats.

If that happens, this author is very sorry. Next time, don't do that to the CEO.


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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