These differences hold up across written and spoken language and most other languages that we have studied. You can’t help but marvel at the fact that we are all bombarded by words from women and men every day of our lives and most of us have never “heard” these sex differences in language. Part of the problem is that our brains aren’t wired to listen to pronouns, articles, prepositions, and other “junk” words. When we listen to another person, we typically focus on what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.
Men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.
No matter what your sex, if you have to explain that Sally is leaving her husband because of her new lover, you have to make references to all the actors and you have to do some fairly complex cognitive analyses. If you have to explain why your carburetor in your car is broken, your causal analysis will likely be relatively pallid and will involve referring to concrete nouns.
COOK: You write about using this to analyze historical documents. Do you think this tool might be of any use to historians or biographers?
PENNEBAKER: Historians and biographers should jump on this new technology. The recent release of the Google Books Project should be required reading for everyone in the humanities. For the first time in the history of the world, there are methods by which to analyze tremendously large and complex written works by authors from all over the world going back centuries. We can begin to see how thinking, emotional expression, and social relations evolve as a function of world-wide events. The possibilities are breathtaking.
In my own work, we have analyzed the collected works of poets, playwrights, and novelists going back to the 1500s to see how their writing changed as they got older. We’ve compared the pronoun use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets. Basically, poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.
The analysis of language style can also serve as a psychological window into authors and their relationships. We have analyzed the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and compared it with the history of their marriage. Same thing with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Using a method we call Language Style Matching, we can isolate changes in the couples’ relationships.
COOK: What are some of the more unusual “texts” you have applied this technique to?
PENNEBAKER: Some of the more unusual texts have been my own. There is something almost creepy about analyzing your own emails, letters of recommendation, web pages, and natural conversations.
COOK: And what have you found?
PENNEBAKER: One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.
I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached -- hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.