Do function words – words like pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions – matter? And if so, what do they tell us? James Pennebaker, chair of the Psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent a considerable amount of time investigating those exact questions. In a recent Harvard Business Review IdeaWatch, we get to learn more about Pennebaker’s research, and what it might mean for us.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
These function words matter for several reasons. With over 500 in the English language, and 55% of our spoken and written language composed of them, they express the real meat of our communication. They get at our ideas, help us shape our language and understand connections, and reveal key information about a speaker’s emotions, age, or socioeconomic background. According to Pennebaker, people who lie tend to use negation words much more often, and people who are are depressed use the pronoun “I” at a much higher rate than do non-depressed people.
THE BOTTOM LINE FOR ORGANIZATIONS
In a job interview, listening to function words might prove helpful in securing a better fit. For example, in a position in which decisiveness is needed, listening for a candidate who avoids “I think” and speaks more assertively could be helpful. And as for gender differences, women are more tuned in to their own internal states, indicated by a greater use of first-person and possessive pronouns, like “I” or “mine.” Men tend to talk about objects more often, as is evident in a greater use of “a,” “an,” and “the.”
So the next time an employer or client asks you about the weather, work on appearing more confident – it’s as simple as saying “it’s cold outside” instead of “I think it’s cold outside.”
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