A couple of years ago, my agent gave me a copy of a book she’d represented, The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker. His thesis is that function words, such as pronouns, articles and prepositions, words we almost completely ignore, tell us more about a person than we could imagine. Function words represent 1% of our vocabulary, yet we use them more than half the time. It’s interesting and provocative, particularly in the case of pronouns, that usage revolves around gender. We might assume that men would use I, first person singular, more often than women. But, in fact, women use first person singular more often. It turns out, according to Pennebaker, that people of high status use first person the least, and people of lower status use first person the most. People of higher status look at the world, while people of lower status look at themselves. This is an important point for professional women, particularly if their career is male-dominated. I would argue that gender neutrality in language, for women, could be one of the keys to success.
After I read the book, I went through my emails to people who were important to me; department heads, department chairs, director of this, director of that--- and what function word dominated the conversation? First person singular. Horror! From that moment, I became acutely aware of how I used pronouns-- and strived for gender neutrality. Function words don’t dictate content, of course, but, according to Pennebaker, they do indicate our relationships to the people around us. Function words, almost invisible, are powerful social words. Today, after I compose a business email, I scan the text, and make adjustments accordingly. As a woman, I really don’t want to write like a man, but I do want to be taken seriously. An email or a report that might’ve begun “It is clear to me” or “I believe” now reads “It's important that” or “Results indicate” or any other variation that doesn’t use first person singular. Men use language differently from women-- and this makes sense because we process the world in different ways. However, In the immortal words of James Brown, this is still a man’s world, and until that changes, knowledge is power.
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