If You Talk About Yourself All The Time, You Might Need More Confidence

Who here feels self-conscious? Raise your hand and say "I."

I did this, I feel this way, it effects me.

What kind of people pepper their speech with first-person pronouns? Is it that the more you say "I," the more you're a narcissist or a super-powerful egomaniac or a whole range of other expletives?

Turns out that saying "I' isn't so much about being super self-serving, but rather self-reflective. That is according to a new study led by James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas, who tells the Wall Street Journal that you'll load your language with "I" not if you feel as if you're in charge, but rather if:

  • You're getting reflective.
  • You're feeling self-conscious.
  • You're kind of insecure.
  • You're in psychical or emotional pain.
  • You're trying to please.

So if you're feeling confident and powerful, Pennebaker says, you won't have a mouthful of self-referentials. Why? Because the high-status person is looking out at the world, he says, while the low-status person is gazing at their navel.

Our pronouns evidence our power dynamics. This isn't often a conscious thing, Pennebaker says:


If I am the high-status person, I am thinking of what you need to do. . . . If I am the low-status person, I am more humble and am thinking, I should be doing this.

For more on Pennebaker's methodology--including the five studies on which the paper is based--head to the original Journal post or read his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Pronouns, power

What's startling about Pennebaker's research is that it helps us see how we don't usually see the way power (and feeling powerful) shapes our behavior. He says to keep an eye on your "I"--if you notice yourself talking about yourself all day, then maybe there's something amiss that you might've missed.

But it's not just pronouns: Your posture predicts--and reflects--your confidence as well.

Hat Tip: the Wall Street Journal

[Image: Flickr user Jeremy Atkinson]

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8 Comments

  • Maria Marsala

    I have this habit myself.  I bring a pencil or gum with me when prospects interview me to stick in my mouth so I keep quiet!   I bring a pad and pen to take notes, which helps too.

    I didn't realize that some of my overactive talking could be due to not having enough confidence "at the time".  I also thing I just get plain nervous and some of it is due to me just wanting to help as many people as possible.

    But the more I keep quiet after I ask a question, the better off I am :)

  • Big Sally

    Thanks University of Texas but Dale Carnegie basically told us this in 1936 with the first edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People, of which 15 million copies have sold since. 

    It's the first principle in Chapter 2, "Become genuinely interested in other people" and all over the 7th principle, "Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves."

    Or maybe I should just shut up and consider the first principle:  "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain."

  • Yasmin

    Thanks for another great article, Drake! Trying to be more cognizant of my use of "I" in my speaking and writing.