Mark My Words

When it comes to narcissism, is it really all about “me”?

In a long essay titled “The ‘Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening” published in New York magazine in 1976, writer Tom Wolfe mocked the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and what he saw as their penchant for self-righteous self-improvement. More recently, a Time magazine cover story titled “The Me Me Me Generation” by Joel Stein singled out the millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) as “lazy, entitled narcissists” and suggested higher rates of narcissism and materialism in members of this generation. Wolfe linked the boomers' obsessions to the postwar affluence that allowed everyone time to focus on themselves; Stein attributed millennials' narcissism to excessive self-esteem instilled by hovering parents and computer technology that allowed people to become their own brands. So which is the real me generation, the boomers or the millennials? Perhaps it's neither and simply the case that every generation enjoys complaining about the one that follows. Or perhaps, as both Wolfe and Stein hint, self-involvement has always been a feature of affluence. It is just more widespread as our collective standard of living rises, our leisure time increases, and technology and culture offer new avenues for individuals to focus on themselves.

The terminology of grammar seems to mirror self-obsession. We call the forms me, my, and I “first-person” pronouns, as opposed to the second person (you, yours), and the third person, which is everyone else. Me, my, and I are also singular first-person pronouns, distinguished from the first-person plurals us, we, and ours. When we talk about the me generation, whether millennials or boomers, the grammar metaphor (I hesitate to call it a meme) invokes a singular focus on the self.

As readers, we also are conflicted about first-person pronouns. We have all probably received or sent cover letters with too much first person in them:

Dear Ms. Holt,

I'm applying for the position of staff writer at Oregon Humanities. I'm a great fit for the job because I've excelled at writing for other magazines, such as Portland Monthly, and I enjoy a loyal readership. I also love writing about the humanities and I have never missed a deadline.

I have several ideas for stories for your magazine and I bring a valuable out-of-the box style. I have enclosed a résumé with my job history and salary requirements, and I will call next week to set up a time for an interview.

Sincerely,
Narcissa McSelfie

You get the idea. The fictitious writer seems to have only her interests, accomplishments, and needs at heart, with no consideration given to what she would bring to the position or organization. And there are a lot of I pronouns: I'm applying, I'm a great fit, I've excelled, I enjoy, and so on. Such letters are often quickly dismissed, filed away with a rueful smile and a shake of the head. But does the heavy use of the first-person singular pronouns me, myself, and I really signal excessive self-esteem, arrogance, and narcissism?

Statistics about pronoun use suggest that the situation is different—and more complicated—than you might think. For about two decades, social psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has been doing large-scale computer analysis of pronouns. Along with a legion of collaborators, he has looked at a wide variety of texts and transcripts—from blogs and love letters to poetry, plays, and presidential speeches. Pennebaker is interested in the grammar of power, emotion, leadership, and community, and he believes that the small details of pronouns and other small function words like adverbs, auxiliaries, and articles can tell us quite a lot.

For example, pronouns reveal the way individuals cope with tragedy. His analysis of the first and last speeches of King Lear show that in the beginning of the play, the arrogant Lear who demands that his daughters profess their love for him speaks in the plural: “Know we have divided in three our kingdom; and it is our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths while we unburdened crawl toward death " In act 5, scene 3, when the dying Lear confronts the corpse of his daughter Cordelia, he speaks in the singular: “Had I your tongue and eyes, I'd use them so that heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever! I know when one is dead and when one lives.” Lear's percentage of I, me, and my goes from 2 percent of the total in act 1 to 7.4 percent in act 5, while the percentage of we, us, and our goes from 12 percent to 0. Pronouns reveal the way that Lear responds to tragedy.

Moving beyond fictional characters to real people, Pennebaker and his colleagues looked at thousands of diary entries written by people dealing with trauma. The use of I, me, and my dropped as writers thought about their situations less personally and as their psychological well-being improved. The change in the way people used first-person pronouns turned out to be a good indicator of improved mental health. Another study found the use of plural pronouns we, us, and our revealing. Researchers looked at more than a thousand blog posts written in the two months prior to and after the September 11 attacks. As you might expect, the blog entries revealed psychological changes in response to the attacks, with bloggers becoming more socially engaged and distant from personal issues. Their use of I, me, and my plummeted, while we, us, and our spiked. The need to be part of a group during times of shared disaster is reflected in the simplest of words. How we express ourselves in difficult circumstances, both individual and communal, is evident not just in what we say, but how we say it. Style and content come together.

Computer analysis points to pronouns as an indicator of our mental state in times of trouble, but what about in ordinary times? What can pronouns tell us about our leaders? Like the fictitious job applicant mentioned earlier, our political leaders are sometimes accused of narcissism—or worse—when they use first-person pronouns. Linguists and psychologists have crunched the numbers on presidential press conferences since the end of World War II and have found some surprising results. Which modern president do you think used the first person the most, and which used it the lowest? In order, from most frequent use of first person to least frequent, the chief executives are: Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama. Pennebaker suspects that writers who complain about politicians' excessive use of I and me are engaging in a bit of confirmation bias: if a pundit believes a politician is self-obsessed, he or she pays attention to the politician's every use of I, me, and my. The lesson is that we should not trust our biases. We should do the counting.

Another place to be cautious about reading too much into first-person pronouns is in thinking about apologies. A serious and sincere apology ought to address the person injured, identify a harm, express regret, and show some moral awareness of one's bad behavior. This necessarily involves the first person, and good apologies are often I-full, using the first person to both apologize for and name the harm. So, I might say, I apologize that I have not gotten back to you, using the first person in both clauses. But if I am trying to dodge responsibility, I might say, I apologize that the exams are not graded yet, implying that I am somehow a sympathetic bystander to the undone grading. Here are seven real-life apologies. Which seem most sincere to you?

“I sincerely regret the unfortunate choice of language which I used in my letter.”
—President Harry Truman
(two first-person pronouns)

“I want to sincerely apologize for the remarks I made on Sunday in Council Bluffs ... ”
—Senator Bob Kerrey
(two first-person pronouns)

“What I said at the end of our election-night coverage was both impolite and unfair. And I'm sorry. I regret it.”
—News anchor David Brinkley
(three first-person pronouns)

“I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions.”
—Writer James Frey

(two first-person pronouns)

“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.”
—President Richard Nixon
(one first-person pronoun)

“I didn't mean anything by it, and I'm sorry if I offended anybody.”
—Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller
(three first-person pronouns)

“I would like to offer an apology, a very heartfelt apology, to the people of Alaska for the damage caused by the grounding of a ship that I was in command of.”
Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood

(two first-person pronouns)

 

Good apologies don't necessarily use more first-person pronouns, but they do use them differently. The better apologies (those by Truman, Kerrey, and Brinkley) use the first person and the active voice to associate the speaker with the offense: language which I used; remarks I made; what I said. The poorer apologies (by Frey, Nixon, Zoeller, and Hazelwood) shift the focus with conditionals (I apologize to readers who have been disappointed by my actions; I'm sorry if I offended anybody) or use complex abstractions that remove the speaker from the offense (the grounding of a ship that I was in command of; injuries that may have been done). Apologies must be I-full in a certain ways, and context matters.

There is more to say about me and I, but you get the idea. A closer look at the language reminds us that pronouns can tell us a lot, but also that we should exercise some caution (and do some counting and diagramming) when we make inferences from pronouns to people. When the numbers are in and the sentences diagrammed, it may indeed turn out that every generation is a me generation.

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Who's Minding Your Business?

Mark My Words

In Defense of Navel-Gazing

Trapped in the Spotlight

The Thing with Feathers

You Remind Me of Me

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