Culture At Large

It's not you, it's me: pronouns and discipleship

Nathan Bierma

Want to really get to know someone or find out what makes them tick? Just listen to their pronouns.

That's the approach of James Pennebaker, psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of the new book, "The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us." Pronouns, says Pennebaker, reveal all sorts of characteristics and assumptions about the person talking.

Using the words "I," "me" and "myself" a lot, Pennebaker argues, doesn't necessarily mean the speaker has a big ego and sense of self-importance. It's actually the opposite: the person is being more open, vulnerable, honest and willing to reduce social distance. This is why a person of higher social status actually uses the words "I" and "me" less than someone of lower social status when the two are speaking to each other - the higher-status person wants to preserve the distance that sets them apart. And so Pennebaker's list of people who use "I" and "me" at higher rates might surprise you: women more than men, "followers" more than "leaders," someone telling the truth more than someone who is lying, someone who is afraid more than someone who is confident, and so on.

Someone should take Pennebaker's theories and try to apply them to Christian discipleship. It would raise all sorts of interesting questions to investigate. Do Christians, in the process of becoming less selfish and more compassionate - dying to self and rising with Christ - actually say "I" and "me" more often? If so, is it because they're less worried about their status and more about being vulnerable and open to serving others? Do pastors follow the same patterns of "I" and "me" use that Pennebaker sees in politicians and CEOs, and for the same reasons? Western Christians get criticized for their individualism and weaker sense of the church, but should their use of "I" in talking about their faith not be held against them?

I wonder if asking questions like these could also help us ask new questions about the book of Psalms. I've always been amazed by all the first-person references in a book of poetry beloved by a non-individualistic society - a chosen people - and read and heard exclusively in the presence of other believers. We may read Psalms privately today, but no one in ancient Israel did. So was it strange for them to hear the words "I" and "me" so often when they heard the Psalms?

Scholars say the first-person pronoun in the Psalms may have reflected a collective sense of self or a way to connect private emotion to public worship. Maybe now there's one more answer, not from a Biblical scholar but a psychologist: all those "I" words in the Psalms reflect honesty and vulnerability, voiced by a poet and a people learning to shrink their own importance and open themselves to God and to the world.

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