Little Words with Great Significance: Some Psychological and Spiritual Revelations of Pronouns
Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, “the hidden conception of the heart supplies the motive for such and such words, ‘for from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.’” (Against Eunomios, Book I). Sometimes that hidden conception is concealed even from the person speaking. How many of us are manifestly selfish, judgmental, or dishonest, yet not fully aware of it! As Saint John Chrysostom remarked, “The mouth speaks indeed, but the understanding knows not what it speaks” (Homily 5 on Collossians). There are, however, some linguistic hints in day-to-day speech that can betray the hidden leanings of our hearts.
We have spoken in depth about philautia and egocentricism. Etymologically, we have seen how these two words have as part of their root pronouns pointing to the self (autos) or the I (ego). One way in which philautia and egocentricity are manifest is in the way we use language. Which pronouns we use and how frequently we use them reveal something about our inner condition. They can disclose the presence of a passion or an attitude that we might not even fully recognize. It’s long been known that egocentric people will use the word I more frequently than the word we. Excessive use of the first person singular pronoun can even be symptomatic of a narcissistic personality disorder (Raskin & Shaw, 1988) found in individuals with grandiose notions of their importance who excessively seek the admiration of others, yet are unable to understand how others feel. If in our conversations, we notice the words I and me frequently popping out, it might mean that we have more philautia (interest in me feeling good and being happy) or egocentricism (it’s all about me) than we suppose. Psychologists have also discovered that people who are depressed use the word I more than those who are not, which could indicate that moving away from the frequent usage of that word might lead to a more positive emotional state. Incessantly talking about ourselves or our plight is not a healthy pastime, psychologically or spiritually.
Of course, not every use of the word I is pathological, egocentric, or a telltale sign of philautia. Using the word I can also be the fruit of healthy self-examination needed for repentance and demonstrate praiseworthy responsibility for our actions. This can be seen when we sincerely pray “Have mercy on me, O God…Against Thee only have I sinned.” That the use of the word I can reflect responsibility and accountability can also be demonstrated by findings that indicate that people who are lying drop the word I altogether (Pennebacker, The Secret Life of Pronouns), ironically often in order to protect their philautia, their egocentricism, or both. And the confession of a person who harps frequently on what he did, what she did, or what they did is probably not lacking in philautia, but instead suffering from a propensity for blaming others when the self should be holding itself responsible.
As for the other pronouns, people who are angry and blame others overuse the word you in their discourse, usually to the irritation, aggravation, or demoralization of the other party. And that usage of you—“you make me so angry”—also stems from egocentricism and philautia. At such moments, a responsible usage of the pronoun I—“I feel angry about that”—would be more responsible and perhaps even more humble. On the brighter side, couples that use the word we tend to resolve their issues together (Simmons et al., 2005). In fact, if one spouse has a smoking problem, but both spouses view it as our problem, it is more likely that attempts of the smoker to give up smoking will be successful (Rohrbaugh et al., 2012). This finding harmonizes well with what Saint Paul taught millennia ago, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
In day-to-day life, the pronouns we reach for say much about our intentions. And this is where watchfulness can be helpful. Looking at the pronouns we use and honestly asking why we are using them can help us choose communication that will be God-pleasing and beneficial. In confession, let us responsibly own the word I as we own up to our sins, but avoid the words, he, she, and they when they are used to blame others instead. In our communication with others, let us avoid the word you when we are angry with someone and move to the word we for “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And when someone tells us if his or her problem, let us help them with what is now our problem, for when “one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.” In this way, we may bring healing and comfort through what we say and what we do.
Raskin, R., & Shaw, R. (1988). Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns. Journal Of Personality, 56(2), 393-404. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.ep8970928
Rohrbaugh, M., Shoham, V., Skoyen, J. Jensen, M., & Mehl, M. (2012) We-Talk, Communal Coping, and Cessation Success in a Couple-Focused Intervention for Health-Compromised Smokers. Family Process, 12(1), 107-121.
Simmons, R., Gordon, P., & Chambless, D. (2005). Pronouns in marital interaction. Psychological Science, 16(12), 932-936.