“I” versus “You”
by Jerry Weissman
There’s an old joke about the opera diva who receives an adoring fan in her dressing room after a performance. The diva goes on and on about how magnificently she sang every one of her arias, about her dramatic acting, her expressive gestures, and her fabulous costumes. After about half an hour, the diva says to the fan, “But enough about me, what did you think of my performance?”
Joe Dator, a cartoonist for New Yorker magazine, did a variation on the diva joke. In his sketch, a man is speaking to a woman seated across a table. The caption reads, “Enough about me, but nothing about you just yet.”
This is no laughing matter in most other walks of life where self-centeredness is an obstacle to communication. In presentations, self-centeredness is manifested by a lack of relevance to the audience, and in sales by the lack of benefits for the customer. But to fully understand the negative impact of such one-way communications, let’s take a more universal view by focusing on self-centeredness in conversations, a social phenomenon otherwise known as “Having a ’versation.”
We’ve all been trapped by party bores who emulate the opera diva by delivering monologues all about themselves. One of the early indications that the one-way street is heading for a dead end is the ratio of declarative statements to questions. Bores speak with no question marks on their verbal keyboard.
Another indicator is the ratio of how frequently bores say “I” to how infrequently they say “you.” That simple metric serves as an early warning for you to excuse yourself to head for the bar and refresh your drink. But the role of pronouns in communication extends beyond chit chat into interpersonal relationships.James W. Pennebaker, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist, studies the connections between the frequency of words and feelings. In his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, he writes:
Pronouns (such as I, you, we, and they)…broadcast the kind of people we are…By looking more carefully at the ways people convey their thoughts in language, we can begin to get a sense of their personalities, emotions, and connections with others.
Mr. Pennebaker conducted a variety of research projects ranging from Craigslist ads to Twitter messages to prove his point. One of the most revealing was a study on speed-dating which, according to a report in the New York Times, “found that couples who used similar levels of personal pronouns, prepositions and even articles were three times as likely to want to date each other compared with those whose language styles didn’t match.”
This post is not meant to help you improve your results at speed-dating, but to urge you to match closely with your listeners, to focus on the “co-” in communications, to have a conversation, not a ‘versation.
When you present, be mindful of your audience by offering them benefits; when you converse, be mindful of the other person by balancing your “I” to “you” ratio. When in doubt, err on the side of the latter.
Note: Mr. Pennebaker offers an opportunity to assess your compatibility with a friend by tracking your word usage in this online exercise: secretlifeofpronouns.com/exercise/synch.