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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Secret Life of Pronouns

Several weeks ago, students in one of my sections of Theory of Knowledge engaged in a spirited debate about the extent to which the words we use reflect our experiences, biases, upbringing, culture, and so forth. Some students posited that every word we utter is a reflection of ourselves—even answers to simple questions (e.g. What color are the walls in this room?)—while others argued that we can speak with neutrality, at least in some cases.

I was reminded of this debate today when I came across an interview with James W. Pennebaker, psychology professor and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, on the Harvard Business School website. The interview focuses (quite naturally) on the application of Pennebaker's research to business. Here's his take on what one can tell about a job applicant from a careful analysis of the words s/he uses during an interview:
It’s almost impossible to hear the differences naturally, which is why we use transcripts and computer analysis. Take a person who’s depressed."I" might make up 6.5% of his words, versus 4% for a nondepressed person. That’s a huge difference statistically, but our ears can’t pick it up. But hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as "we" or "they"? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says "It’s hot" rather than "I think it’s hot" may be a better fit.
I haven't read Pennebaker's book, but I will add it to my reading list. As an aside, the article also includes this cool graphic—which may or may not be a word cloud—of the twenty most commonly used words in English:

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