Pronouns produce big changes in the brain but can impact people from different cultures in different ways.
Building off my seminar at the IABC World Conference 2021, I was thrilled to return in 2022 to do a Listening Lounge on the neuroscience of pronouns. Pronouns are emerging as an unsung but important topic for communicators, and neuroscience reveals that they trigger profound changes in the brain — and impact people from different cultural backgrounds in different ways.
A large amount of research from the field of cultural neuroscience focuses on the neural correlates associated with “I” versus “we” pronouns. One of the key takeaways from pronoun research is that we need to employ a more agile and strategic use of pronouns to make corporate communication more effective.
The key to understanding pronouns is a construct in psychology known as self-construal. Self-construal refers to the relationship between the self and others and, more specifically, the degree to which people see themselves as separate from or connected to others.
Self-construal is usually classified into two distinct orientations: independent self-construal, where individuals seek to maintain independence and express their individuality; and interdependent self-construal, where individuals focus on social harmony and fitting in.
The easiest way to understand independent and interdependent self-construal is to compare them to their better-known culture-level equivalents: individualism and collectivism. In anthropology, these are sometimes referred to as low- and high-context cultures.
Why are these constructs important? Mainly because studies have found that Westerners (e.g., Americans, Australians, most Europeans) tend to have more independent self-construal, while East Asians (e.g., Chinese, Koreans and Japanese) tend to favor interdependent self-construal. In other words, people from Western cultures tend to be more individualistic, while those from Eastern cultures tend to be more collectivistic.
Psychologists measure self-construal orientation through validated assessments and scales. However, it’s important to note that both types of self-construal are present in everyone — a concept known as the “dual self.” Many people are skilled in moving from one type of self-construal orientation to the other; these individuals are often bilingual and have significant cross-cultural experience.
Self-construal may sound straightforward, but it cannot be underestimated in terms of how much our dominant orientation impacts our experience of the world. For example, research has found that self-construal orientation:
- Influences the basis for self-esteem
- Impacts emotional reactions to injustice and punishment
- Determines if an apology is likely to inspire forgiveness
- Predicts ethical behavior in leaders, as well as how followers perceive it
- Attributes agency to the self or the group
- Predicts leadership communication style
Clearly, self-construal is an important thing to know about! Perhaps the most fascinating thing about it is that it is very easy to manipulate.
One of the ways that cultural neuroscientists learn about the brain is by priming individuals for the opposite of their non-dominant self-construal orientation. A great method of doing this is through pronoun manipulation, such as using a pronoun word search task. This research technique involves reading a descriptive story that uses either singular (e.g., “I” and “you” for independent priming) or plural (“we” and “they” for interdependent priming) pronouns and highlighting them — and then studying the changes in the brain. It’s that simple. This technique has been shown to be highly effective in shifting the balance between independent and interdependent self-construals (Gardner et al., 1999) and shifting neural activity. As a result, it has been widely used in cultural neuroscience research.
Why This Matters for Communicators
Why is understanding pronouns important for communicators? Well, first of all, we need to understand that we prime people with pronouns all the time. However, few of us realize we are actually activating very different neural correlates. Pronoun priming may take the form of using “we” in internal announcements or “I” in executive speechwriting.
Second, we need to understand that pronouns impact people from different cultures in different ways. Studies in individualistic cultures, for example, have revealed that using “we” pronouns can promote group identity and belonging, as well as transformational leadership. The use of “we” pronouns in corporate communication has even been linked to more positive financial performance. There is a common belief among corporate communicators that using “we” pronouns will enhance teamwork, a sense of shared ownership and relationship-building. Sounds great, right? Except much of this research and reasoning is based on Western contexts. We don’t know yet if these results will hold true in other types of societies.
It’s also worth noting that “we” pronouns have a dark side. A fascinating Chinese study found that priming research subjects with “we” pronouns led to greater bias and less empathy toward non-Chinese group members. Priming them with “I” pronouns did the opposite, increasing empathy and reducing bias. In other words, “we” pronouns made research subjects more biased, not less. This has fascinating implications for diversity and inclusion — especially in non-Western contexts.
While the body of research grows every day, one thing is clear: Pronoun agility is a skill we need to cultivate more. Pronoun agility enables a deeper resourcefulness and ability to shift perspective and literally uses more of our brains. As such, pronoun agility is an increasingly critical skill for modern communicators, particularly those designing strategies for global audiences.