Who do you think uses the word I more often during public appearances: Barack Obama or former President George W. Bush?

Most people answer Barack Obama. And most people are wrong. In fact, Barack Obama uses I less frequently than any US president since Harry Truman.

So where does the confusion come from? Obama appears highly confident. Most people assume that confident people like to talk about themselves and use the word I frequently. In fact, the opposite is true.

Who would have guessed that words like I, you, the, to, but, and and could say so much about us? —James Pennebaker
Psychologist James Pennebaker shows how little words like “I”, “we”, and “the” reveal much about our relationships, honesty, and social status. And the results are not what you might expect!

The Language of Leaders

The language of leaders is we. A recent study of Australian federal election results since 1901 found that 4 out of 5 winning candidates used the collective pronoun more frequently than the losing candidate.

study of cockpit communication in commercial aircraft found that the highest status person (Captain) used the words we, our, or us more frequently than other crew members (First Officers and Flight Engineers). A leader’s use of inclusive language fosters a team perspective, e.g. “Let’s get this project started” that is correlated with positive performance.

So is the key to engaging the hearts and minds of others simply referring to the collective more often? It’s not that simple.

I Have a Dream

If the word we is so important, how can we explain the success of the famous I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. King repeated “I have a dream” many times with great rhetorical success. However, he did so only after establishing a strongly-shared social identity with the audience:

“We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”

He first communicated togetherness and purpose. After King established a collective identity, he used his personal vision and charisma to convey the message to the masses:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Most successful leaders have learned to walk a fine line balancing inclusive language (we, us, our) with personal language (I, me, my). Inclusive language is necessary to establish a social bond. Personal language is needed to keep the communication authentic.

We-Cultures and I-Cultures

Some cultures emphasize the group over the individual. According to Geert Hofstede, Asian and Latin American countries are more group-oriented than individualistic North American and European nations. View a world map here.

People from collectivist cultures may more naturally talk about we, us, our and avoid giving their personal opinion. Even people from individualist cultures use we when they want to distance themselves psychologically from what they are saying. For example: “We have made mistakes.” Even more distance is gained by using the passive voice: “Mistakes have been made.”

The inclusive we means “you and me together.” Leaders who use we succeed in establishing a collective bond with their followers. Martin Luther King, Jr. was adept at this use of we.

The Truth Be Told

People who are telling the truth tend to use the first-person. They say I and take a personal approach. On the other hand, people who are lying may attempt to distance themselves from the event. They tend to avoid the word I.

For example, former US Congressman Anthony Weiner denied that he had published an obscene picture on the Internet in 2011 with the statement: We’re trying to find out where that photograph came from.”

A few days later, after admitting that he had published the photograph, Weiner said, “At the outset I’d like to make clear that I have made terrible mistakes and I’ve hurt the people I care about the most and am deeply sorry.”

What’s a Leader to Do?

Use the inclusive weEmpathy is the basis of all human relationships. As a leader, emphasize what you have in common with your supporters. Talk about what stands to be gained (or lost) as a group.  Paint a compelling picture of how you can shape the desired outcome together. Make this your call to action, e.g. “Let’s get this project started.”

Be personal. While using we to establish a collective bond is important, also make your appeal personal by using the word I. Tell stories and examples that demonstrate your personal involvement with the cause.

Watch the original footage and Pennebaker’s explanation of we versus I here:

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Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: what our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Sexton, J. B., & Helmreich, R. L. (2000). Analyzing cockpit communications: The links between language, performance, and workload. Human Performance in Extreme Environments, 5, 63-68.

Steffens NK, Haslam SA (2013). Power through ‘Us’: Leaders’ Use of We-Referencing Language Predicts Election Victory. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77952. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077952

Zimmer, B. (2011). The Power of Pronouns The New York Times, 26 Aug 2011.

Image courtesy of Yodel Anecdotal / CC BY-SA 2.0