“I” versus “we”

A number of people have noticed that there are substantial differences in the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama use pronouns. This is part, but not the whole story about deceptiveness and spin in communication, as I’ve talked about in earlier postings.

The conventional explanation goes something like this:

“Clinton says “I” a lot because she’s egotistical, or because she plans to get things done, with or without the help of other people. Obama says “we” a lot because he is inclusive and wants to develop a shared dream that all can be involved in.”

This view is completely wrong, although it’s probably true that Obama, at some time, developed his use of “we” because he thought or was told that it would create an inclusive impression.

The reality is almost exactly the opposite. People who use first-person singular pronouns (“I”, “me”, “my”) do so, unconsciously, because they are being open, warm, and low status.

People who use first-person plural pronouns (“we”,”us”,”ours”) are not being as open, especially if the speaker is a man. Men use such pronouns as a velvet glove around an iron fist, a way to command without the appearance of command.

How do I know this? The models of language have been derived empirically, much of it the work of James Pennebaker and his group. They have studied the language that people use in known situations, and derived word usage profiles that have enabled them to draw these kinds of conclusions.

Obama uses the language he does because it works — people do perceive him as inclusive. But that doesn’t mean that that’s his real view of the situation. Clinton has adopted, consciously or not, an approach that presents her real self much more directly

It’s not all about pronouns. Other important components are exclusive words (“but”,”nor” which both McCain and Clinton have used in the past week!); negative emotion words (“angry”); and action verbs (“going”).


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