Earlier this week NPR reported on research by James Pennebaker, which is described more thoroughly in a new book called The Secret Life of Pronouns. Pennebaker is an esteemed social psychologist who chairs the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin. One interesting bit his empirical work has revealed is that the use of the pronoun “I” increases relative to a person’s social status: the lower the status, the more one resorts to using “I” in communications with someone perceived to have a higher status. For instance, a subordinate writing an e-mail to a supervisor is more likely to use “I” repeatedly whereas the supervisor in responding is unlikely to use it at all.
Saying “I think,” “I believe,” “I contend,” etc. softens the substantive observation that follows. That is, if I say “I think Pennebaker is both an endearing and insightful scholar” that would strike the listener as a more qualified statement than were I simply to say “Pennebaker is both an endearing and insightful scholar.”
According to Pennebaker, when we communicate with people whom we perceive to be of superior status, we just naturally (and unconsciously) use first-person pronouns to soften our approach.
Because use of first-person pronouns—particularly “I”—softens a statement, I counsel against using them when advising students or lawyers about their performance during oral arguments. In fact, recourse to first-person hedging (“I think” or even “We contend”) during an argument telegraphs a degree of uncertainty, suggesting that a particular legal rule is merely a matter of opinion or is contingent upon a subjective point of view. While it is true that anyone arguing that a court adopt a particular position is always pursuing a position dictated by a particular client’s interest—i.e., an inherently subjective position—an effective argument is supposed to square with an objective understanding of existing legal precedent. A legal argument’s legitimacy cannot appear to hinge on the speaker’s subjective views or original observations. The desired outcome must be substantiated by legitimate legal authority—preferably authority that binds the decision-maker or is at least so elegantly reasoned and factually analogous to your case that the decision-maker finds it persuasive in the absence of helpful, binding authority.
All this suggests a paradox wrapped in an enigma:
· While furthering a particular cause, lawyers will only sound sufficiently authoritative if they make arguments that seem to transcend their subjective perspective.
· A lawyer accomplishes this task by consciously editing out the first-person pronouns that natural instinct tells the lawyer to use when a superior—e.g., a judge, supervisor, or client—is the party to whom the lawyer is speaking.
How does any of this relate to Shakespeare?
The answer is: See King Lear. In Lear the plot is set in motion when Lear requires his three daughters to rhapsodize in public about how great they think he is before he will show them what portion of his kingdom they stand to inherit. For instance, at the king’s invitation, eldest daughter, Goneril, gushes:
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
Yah, yah, yah. Nobody really believes the sentiment, including the speaker and the addressee. But Goneril (and her sister Regan) understand the game. They give their dad what he wants: a public display using effusive “I” statements to show proper deference.
By contrast, the youngest daughter—Lear’s favorite—Cordelia refuses to play along. As a result, Lear flies into a rage and impulsively disowns her. Meanwhile, a parallel drama is launched when one of Lear’s trusted nobles, Gloucester, decides to let the self-serving, sycophantic rhetoric of one son (Edmund) dictate how he sees the other son (Edgar). When Edgar, the good son, finally realizes what is going on—and that his life is in danger—he saves himself by disappearing in plain sight. He disguises himself as a homeless madman and declares “Edgar I nothing am.”
Only by giving up the “I” is Edgar able to save himself and, eventually, some remnants of hope for the kingdom that the elders’ bad judgment has torn asunder.
In other words, one message at work in Lear is related to the observations articulated above about the role of “I” in communications. We instinctively rely on “I”s when deferring to authority; but when we want to sound authoritative, we need to lose the “I”s. Lear shows us how this language game—using “I” statements as submissive displays—can be exploited. When the speaker speaks in bad faith merely to suck up to an authority and the superior misses or ignores this fact, those at the top can be manipulated into disregarding their own deeper understanding about who really deserves their trust. Countering such circumstances may require that the trustworthy resort to drastic measures--eradicating their “I” altogether, hiding out in the shadows, and relying principally on showing instead of telling as a way to restore equilibrium.