To See Who Holds The Power In Your Relationships, Check Your Old Emails

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Power dynamics are everywhere, from our personal relationships to our professional ones. Do you know where do you stand in yours? Here's a little psychology experiment you can run at home. Finding out could be as simple as reading through your old e-mails.

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I'm going to spend the next few paragraphs introducing this subject, partly to contextualize what it is we're talking about, but also because it's just a fascinating subject. What we're dealing with here is language, specifically those parts of language that we often overlook, and how we use it.

"The," "this," "a," "and," "an," "there," "that," are all examples of what are called "function words." You can think of them as the glue that bind together so-called "content words" – which convey information by denoting key people, places, things, and situations – into meaningful statements.


There's no question function words are important from a structural standpoint, but according to UT Austin psychologist James Pennebaker, they're basically invisible to humans; as we read, or listen to someone speak, our brains tend to overlook them as we search for meaning in a statement's meatier, more consequential content words. And that's a shame, he says, because there's a lot of information hidden in how we use function words.

For the last 20 years or so, Pennebaker has been using some text-analysis computer software called "The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Program" to measure and analyze the words our brains dismiss as verbal chaff (you can give LIWC a spin for yourself here) – and he's made some intriguing observations. For example, by paying close attention to the function words spoken by 80 men and women throughout an evening of speed-dating, Pennebaker can tell you which couples are more likely to go on a second date. In another recent study, he found that use of filler words – "um," "like," "uh," "I mean," "you know," and the like – was associated with conscientiousness.


But you don't need a computer, or special software, to appreciate one of Pennebaker's most interesting hypotheses: that by analyzing the language that two people exchange in a given relationship, you can tell who holds the power and each person's relative social status. To see how Pennebaker's hypothesis holds up when applied to your own relationships, you need only look as far as your inbox.

"It's amazingly simple," Pennebaker said in a 2012 interview with NPR, "Listen to the relative use of the word "I." The person with the higher status, he says, will use the pronoun less often. To illustrate this point, Pennebaker pulled up an e-mail exchange between him and a famous professor, written before he started studying the language of power dynamics:

Dear Famous Professor:

The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.

Jamie Pennebaker

The professor replies:

Dear Jamie -

Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one ... and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another's current research.... Isn't there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?

With all best regards,

Famous Professor

I tried this out for myself, looking through e-mails between myself and various, bosses, authority figures, and researchers who I've contacted for interviews. Across twenty email exchanges, the ratio of my I-usage to their I-usage averaged out to about 5:1.


According to Pennebaker, this is because talking to people in positions of power tends to make us feel self-conscious. When we focus on ourselves, he says, we use "I" more.

NPR's Alix Spiegel picks up the logical line of questioning:

So could we use these insights to change ourselves? Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady,could we bend our personalities by bending the words we use? Could we become stronger? More powerful? Healthier?

After 20 years of looking at this stuff, Pennebaker doubts it.

"The words reflect who we are more than [they] drive who we are," he says.

You can't, he believes, change who you are by changing your language; you can only change your language by changing who you are. He says that's what his research indicates.


NPR recently revisited their 2012 article on Pennebaker's research to catch readers up on some of his more recent findings. Read the updated piece here.

h/t Kathryn Jepsen