Take a Page From The Rock and Refer to Yourself in the Third Person

Take a Page From The Rock and Refer to Yourself in the Third Person
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Dwayne Johnson

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The Rock may have been onto something.

Back in his early days, before he became a wrestling superstar and long before he appeared in kids' movies, The Rock liked to scream, "Do you smell what The Rock is cookin'?" before bashing into an opponent.

A new study published in this month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we should all consider taking a page from The Rock's eclectic playbook (the referring to ourselves in the third person part, at least).

Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that participants who referred to themselves as “you” or by their own names while silently talking to themselves before a five-minute speech were calmer and more confident beforehand. They were also judged to have performed better than those who had referred to themselves as “I” or “me," and felt less shame after the speech. By distancing us from ourselves, the authors speculate, the use of the second and third person pronouns during silent introspection allows us to regulate our emotions and rise above the stress.

Related: 3 Ways to Boost Your 'Executive Presence' While Pitching for Funding

Hold the eye roll. Yes, swapping a pronoun may seem like a trivial change. (Not to mention that referring to yourself in the third person can come across a little douche-y.)

But it turns out that the pronouns we choose can reveal quite a lot about our mental state.

Are you heavy handed with the pronoun 'I,' for example? Contrary to what you might think, high useage of the first person pronoun indicates low self-esteem issues, as well as a subordinate position on the totem pole. (Depressed people use the pronoun more often than the nondepressed).

"There is a misconception that people who are confident, have power, have high-status tend to use 'I' more than people who are low status," Dr. James Pennebaker, author of "The Secret Life of Pronouns" told The Wall Street Journal. "That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself."

This revelation came after a series of five studies, carried out by Dr. Pennebaker and a group of researchers at the University of Texas and published in September 2013 in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

In the first, business school students were broken up into 41 four-person groups, and asked to improve an imaginary company’s customer service. In each group, one person was randomly selected to lead. Overall, the pronoun "I" accounted for 4.5 percent of leaders' words; for non-leaders, it made up 5.6 percent.

Related: 5 Steps to Conquering Public-Speaking Anxiety

All five studies – which included an experiment that examined pronoun use in a more casual social setting, and one that analyzed pronoun use in email correspondences – found that people in more dominant positions (both socially and in the workplace) used "I" noticeably less than their subordinate counterparts.

While even large differences in pronoun choice can't be readily identified in day-to-day conversation, analyzing how often someone uses "I" can be a valuable exercise when it comes to hiring. "Hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job," Pennebaker told Harvard Business Review. "Do they refer to them as “we” or “they”? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says “It’s hot” rather than “I think it’s hot” may be a better fit."

But can we change our performance and behavior simply by changing our pronouns? The recent study from Minnesota suggests that it's possible.

So the next time you're in a high pressure situation, try speaking to yourself in third person. You may just address your way into a more powerful position.

Related: Need a Pep Talk?

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