Drop the pronouns

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

A career coaching client and I were working on an email to a recruiter outlining her salary requirements. We passed a draft back and forth until we were both satisfied.

“Proposal looks good,” I replied to the last draft. “Short, direct, no pronouns, no waffling.”

As a career coach, my relationship with pronouns has evolved (my 10th grade English teacher would be so pleased!). I used to think the pronoun “I” was a strong, powerful word; in fact, I used to coach my clients to use it to demonstrate ownership over their accomplishments.

I was wrong.

“Here’s the rule: The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy,” writes James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in his 2011 book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.” “If the two of you are about the same in I-word usage, you probably have an equal relationship.”

I definitely want my clients entering salary negotiations on an equal footing with their counterparts — and I definitely don’t want my clients, as they navigate their careers, to be signaling low status with their pronouns.

But talking about “status” seems a bit squirmy and improper. “The grim truth is that to be a healthy human you must be attentive to social status,” Pennebaker writes. “As social animals, we are enmeshed in social hierarchies. We see them in ant colonies, dog packs, chimpanzee troops, elementary school playgrounds, boardrooms and nursing homes.”

“No matter what group we happen to be in, most of us are trying to fit in and, at the same time, trying to have as much influence as possible,” he writes.

Pennebaker’s book is a very readable, delightfully written 352 pages long, but all that grammar gets a bit complicated with gender implications and complex edge cases, so I keep it simple for my coaching purposes: few to no pronouns.

Thinking about pronouns is important because we identify our relative status within moments of meeting someone in person. “Within the first minute of the conversation, the social hierarchy was established,” Pennebaker writes, describing one study he and colleagues designed linking pronoun use to status in natural conversations.

In my coaching, I’m not particularly interested in trying to change my clients’ spoken use of pronouns. Trying to change our words but not, perhaps, our mindset and behavior seems a bit disingenuous and cynical. Our written communications is a whole other matter, however.

“And, in fact, if the goal is merely to make a person sound leader-like, then the careful crafting of their words can be effective in the short run,” Pennebaker writes.

I definitely don’t want my clients sabotaging their prospects by coming across as un-leader-like in their writing style. That’s an easy tweak: no I/me/my pronouns in written salary negotiations, promotion docs, formal proposals, etc.

Pennebaker shares an endearing anecdote where he shines the spotlight on himself and his own writing style. He describes writing two emails: one to an esteemed colleague, whom he calls the Very Important Professor, and one to a Humble Graduate Student.

“The results were painfully predictable,” he writes. The tone of both emails is warm and constructive, he writes, but “they convey slightly different messages. The request to the Very Important Professor is written as if I have my hat in my hand. You can see me stooping over a little and speaking in a quiet voice.”

Total number of I/me/my pronouns in his email to his colleague? Four.

The number of I/me/my pronouns in his email to the graduate student? Zero.

I definitely don’t want my clients communicating with future employers with a figurative hat in their hand.

The first draft of the salary proposal my client sent me asked for a number just this side of crazy, exactly as we had discussed. However, I counted 11 I/me/my pronouns in that draft.

This is the final version:

Hi [recruiter’s name],

Thanks for following up. Regarding your question about salary requirements, let’s shoot for $xxx–$xxxK based on my level of experience and industry comps in the market.

Number of I/me/my pronouns? One.

She got the offer.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.