What comes to mind when you think about three little words: I, you, and we? Likely you don’t give them any thought at all — or if you do, you might assume they are simply a way to mark who is speaking at any given moment. But we have discovered that these “little words” can carry a big punch: They convey a host of implicit messages that enable people to move beyond their own perspective to imagine how someone else would think or feel.
The words we choose give humans the flexibility of either focusing inward on the self (“I always make mistakes”) or adopting a broader, more inclusive perspective (“We all make mistakes”). Whenever you express your own thoughts, beliefs, and insights, you are making a choice by virtue of the words that you use, often without even realizing it. In this way, human languages provide a relatively effortless mechanism for reframing experience from personal and isolated, to general and shared with others. In contrast to deliberately shifting perspective when instructed to do so (an effortful task that is often difficult to achieve), shifting perspective by pronoun shifts is intrinsic to the structure of human languages, highly practiced, and entrenched in everyday conversation.
Over the last few years, I have been collaborating with Drs. Ariana Orvell and Ethan Kross to study how people engage in these pronoun shifts and what consequences they have for psychological functioning. We have discovered that broadening one’s perspective via pronoun choices has impacts for children as well as adults. Pronoun shifts are used to make meaning out of difficult experiences, to create resonance with others, and to convey kindness, compassion, and the right way to behave.