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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Quick Fix That Will Make Important People Consider You an Equal

There’s no “I” in “team”—but there are two in “inferior.” All those reminders to share the spotlight we memorized during soccer practice and dance team weren’t just clichés; they actually had some value. However, not for the reasons you’d think.

It turns out that reducing your use of the word “I” can actually make people view you as more powerful and confident.

James Pennebaker, a psychologist from the University of Texas who analyzes how people talk for hidden insight, found that whoever uses the word “I” more in a conversation usually has a lower social status.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, but Pennebaker says that being around someone who ranks above us increases our self-consciousness, which reflects itself in what we say (and how we say it).

To illustrate this, Pennebaker uses two sets of emails. The first were sent between Pennebaker and his undergraduate student, Pam.

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:

I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I've learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?


He responds:

Dear Pam –

This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.

Jamie Pennebaker

The next email is from Pennebaker to a famous professor.

Dear Famous Professor:

The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.

Jamie Pennebaker

And the response:

Dear Jamie –

Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one... and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another's current research… Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?

With all best regards, Famous Professor

Emails courtesy of NPR.

According to NPR, Pennebaker, who considers himself a very egalitarian person, was shocked to see he talked to people differently depending on their social status.

Take a look at some of your emails and see if this holds true. Do you find yourself using “I” more in emails to your boss than to your intern? Last time you emailed a mentor or a contact asking for a coffee meeting, was your email littered with the pronoun?

And next time you’re talking to someone important and you want to level the playing field? Monitor your use of “I.” He or she will view you as more powerful without ever knowing why.

Photo of seesaw courtesy of Shutterstock.