As you’ve learned, the words you use can tell us a lot about the way you think. Interestingly, these same words can be used to figure out your rung on the social ladder. As with different types of thinking, function words are the biggest indicator of who’s who in a given society.
In the case of social status, pronouns are crucial, and their use can be divided into three categories.
First, people with a higher status use first-person pronouns less than lower-status individuals. So, when high-status people talk to lower-status people they use the words I, me and my much less frequently.
Second, people with a high status use first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) significantly more than low-status people.
Finally, people with a higher status are more likely to use second-person pronouns (you, your) in both written and spoken conversation.
So what is it that causes our use of pronouns to change with social status? The answer has to do with where we focus our attention.
Research has found that, in face-to-face conversation, high-status people tend to look at their audience when speaking, but look away when they’re the ones doing the listening. Lower-status people, on the other hand, do the opposite – they look away while they speak.
But where exactly are they looking? In all likelihood, they’re looking inward, and therefore use I-words more often. This makes sense, as I-words reflect attention to oneself, while you-words and we-words reflect attention toward the audience.
We can see these indicators of status manifested when examining former US president Richard Nixon’s language during the Watergate scandal, a major American political scandal that ultimately resulted in Nixon’s resignation.
Part of this scandal revolved around the voice recording system that Nixon had secretly installed in his office in the White House. These tapes allowed the author to analyze the private conversations between Nixon and some of his political advisors.
Unsurprisingly, Nixon used far fewer I-words than his political advisors. But when the Watergate scandal unfolded and Nixon’s status began to erode, his use of I-words increased.