Excerpted from INFLUENCE IS YOUR SUPERPOWER: THE SCIENCE OF WINNING HEARTS, SPARKING CHANGE, AND MAKING GOOD THINGS HAPPEN, copyright © 2022 by Zoe Chance. Used by permission of Random House Group, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
When I ask people which influence skill they’d like to develop, the most common response by far is “charisma.” When I ask them to define it, they tell me, “It means people pay attention to you” or “It means you have a lot of presence.” But why do we pay attention to charismatic people? What are they doing? A dictionary definition of charisma is “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others,” but as a tool for influence, that language is awfully vague. Yes, charisma gets people to pay attention to you, but it’s not just any kind of attention. You wouldn’t say a guy running through the office in his underwear is charismatic. People who try to make themselves the center of attention just become annoying.
The first paradox of charisma is that trying to be charismatic has the opposite effect.
Most of us, most of the time, aren’t consciously trying to be the center of attention. But we can fall into this trap subconsciously, focusing on ourselves in ways that are anti-charismatic. Humor me for a moment and try this exercise.
In each row below, guess which group uses the word “I” more often.
Older people…or younger people?
Richer people…or poorer people?
Happy people…or depressed people?
Angry people…or fearful people?
Better students…or worse students?
According to analyses of formal and informal conversations, speeches, emails, and other written documents, people in the groups listed on the right-hand side tend to use “I” and other first-person pronouns more frequently and by a large margin. The pioneer of this research is James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who describes his work in a delightfully nerdy book called The Secret Life of Pronouns. He found that people who feel they have less power or lower status tend to use more self-referential language. Sometimes the gap has a basis in reality—followers must take orders from leaders, and the poor are less powerful than the rich. But unconscious linguistic patterns derive more precisely from feelings of personal power—or lack thereof.
An analysis of Academy Award acceptance speeches showed that actors used first-person pronouns more frequently than directors did. If you’re an Academy Award–winning actor you’re not exactly low-status, but directors are still the boss of you. This relationship between pronoun use and status isn’t unique to English. Pennebaker found the same pattern in letters written in Arabic by lower-ranking Iraqi officers to their more senior colleagues. When someone lacks power, status, or agency, they tend to focus on their own experience: “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine.”
You might assume that when someone’s attention is self-focused, they’re talking in a narcissistic or self-aggrandizing way. But often it’s the opposite. Consistent self-focus usually arises from feelings of insecurity. When you feel vulnerable, you can’t help directing your attention inward. What’s more, you’re probably unaware that your frequent use of first-person pronouns is a tell for your mental state.
Think back to a time when you were physically vulnerable—in pain, ill, very hungry, or cold. Your conscious attention was focused on your own experience because you were stuck in a situation you were desperate to escape. Your mind was saying, Help me. I feel sick. Or, My arm hurts. When your own difficult situation occupies all your mental real estate, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is reflected in your unconscious use of pronouns. This self-focus also applies to emotional pain, including anxiety and depression.
When Pennebaker and his colleagues analyzed pronoun choices in essays written by depressed college students, they found that these students used “I” a lot. Their self-referential language didn’t spring from some fixed personality trait; it merely reflected their mental state, which, of course, is subject to change. In this same study Pennebaker found that students who had been depressed but no longer were used “I” less often. The bottom line here is when you are feeling vulnerable, physically or emotionally, it’s difficult to get out of your own head.
This makes it hard to be fully present with someone else. Or to be charismatic.
Diminishers are verbal attempts to connect through submission, the human equivalent of a dog rolling over to expose his belly or neck. We tend to use them when we feel our safety or well-being may depend on being liked.
First-person pronouns aren’t the only words we use that act as attentional boomerangs, returning the focus to ourselves. Diminishers—verbal attempts to connect through submission—do this, too. These are the human equivalent of a dog rolling over to expose his belly or neck. We tend to use them in situations where there’s an imbalance of power or status, and we do it more often when we’re on the low end—when we feel our safety or well-being may depend on being liked. Higher-status people don’t need to care what others think of them, although some who do care diminish themselves in order to avoid coming across as arrogant or controlling.
What does diminishing language sound like in conversation? “I was just wondering,” “I thought maybe,” “Can I ask a stupid question?” and “I’m sorry, but…(lots of “I”s here, too). Diminishers express caution and vagueness, as in “kind of,” “sort of,” “it seems,” “generally,” “more or less,” and “it’s possible that.” Sometimes you hear diminishing language in “upspeak,” that submissive, friendly lilt that turns statements into questions. You know what I mean?
“I’m sorry” is so overused as a diminisher that comedian Amy Schumer created an entire skit to satirize it. An all-female panel of world experts is incapable of actually describing their work because its members are constantly apologizing for everything. I’m sorry for the mic feedback, sorry for being interrupted, sorry for clearing my throat, sorry for correcting your pronunciation of my name, sorry for being such a diva because I’m allergic to that soda and asked for water instead. The apologies culminate with one of the panelists apologizing for having her leg burned when someone accidentally spills boiling-hot coffee. The “Sorry” skit is simultaneously hilarious and painful to watch because so many of us can relate to it.
Although no one will dislike you for diminishing yourself, they’re not going to like you for it either. Like boomerangs, diminishers keep bringing attention right back to you. Diminishers are hard to listen to, easy to interrupt, and astonishingly common. Even James Pennebaker, the expert on language and power, found he was diminishing himself when emailing his higher-ups.
He noticed this when he had to ask several people in his department at the University of Texas to move their offices. When appealing to a colleague with higher social status, Pennebaker wrote, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, but I think I may need to ask you if you would be willing to give up your office.” You can feel the diminishing effect of those three “I”s in one sentence. And you can appreciate how difficult it is to listen to people who write and talk this way. Their communications require additional decoding. The fact that Pennebaker is uncomfortable certainly comes across, but beyond that, what is he really saying? Is he asking for something, or is he saying he might have to at some future time?
You may notice you tend to be self-focused not just when you’re speaking and writing, but when you’re listening too. We all are. My mind bounces from When have I experienced something like that? to What will I say next? and it doesn’t help that much to try to listen. When I do try harder, my mind starts jumping to How should I demonstrate that I’m listening?, How do they want me to respond?, How can I show empathy?, or How can I help? I, I’m, me, I, I.
Even when I’m motivated by compassion (I want to show them I’m a good listener because I care about them), that’s still a lot about “I.” Comedian Mindy Kaling does a funny bit on this phenomenon. Describing what it’s like to meet someone at a party, she talks about compulsively trying to focus on them. “I don’t think they’re interesting. I don’t want to keep this going. But the worst thing in the world for me is for them to think that I think they’re boring or want to extricate myself in some way from this conversation…. So, then this person leaves the party telling their spouse, Mindy Kaling is obsessed with me. She talked to me for two hours.”
If you’d like to reduce diminishers from your vocabulary, know that most can simply be skipped. Just go ahead and say it. When James Pennebaker conveyed the same office-moving message to a graduate student of lower status, he felt no need to diminish himself. He simply wrote, “Would you be willing to move your office?” Mindy Kaling knows she could be straightforward and charismatic at the party, too: “You can simply just say, Well, it was great to meet you. I’m going to go mingle.”