Presentation Review – How Our Words Reflect Who We Are


Last night I saw James Pennebaker speak at the Austin Forum on Science and Technology. This was one of the more interesting Austin Forum’s in a while, partly because it enticed me to come back; I hadn’t been to an Austin Forum in several months now.

Pennebaker explained how his research into language got started. One of his first (and most profound) findings was that people who keep dramatic experiences to themselves are far more likely to be chronically sick.

From there, his research team asked subjects to write about their dramatic experience – and found that people who finally shared this experience were more likely to see an improvement in their health.

Then the research team analyzed the language and word usage of what these people had written. Here’s what they found out:

·         If people used positive words (joy, happy, love) in their writings, in any context good or bad, they showed an increase in health.

·         If over a period of time of writing about dramatic experiences the writing changes (what was being written about), that is also a good thing (health tends to improve).

·         If over a period of time of writing about dramatic experiences the use of certain pronouns changes (from “I” to “we”, or “we” to “I” for instance), it signals a change in perspective, and that is a good thing (health tends to improve).

So the findings, if I interpreted them right, are that simply writing about the dramatic experience after all these years wasn’t necessarily the driving force to better health. Instead, sharing these experiences needs to 1) finally get it out in the open (instead of being bottled up and negatively effecting health); and 2) through the process of sharing, the person needs to grow – through using positive words, by changing their focus on the dramatic event, through shifting their perspective of what happened. These are the signifiers for being able to finally move past these events so they no longer negatively affect one’s health.

All in all, an excellent talk – which had only one slide! – and I will probably buy his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns.


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About Matthew Peterworth

I currently work as a Technology Specialist at Henderson Engineers in Kansas City – a Mechanical-Electrical-Plumbing (MEP) design firm. Prior to that I was a Project Manager for Information Technology Services (ITS), the central IT department at the University of Texas at Austin. As of July 2008 I am a Registered Communications Distribution Designer (RCDD) through BICSI. And as of June 2011 I am a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the great state of Texas. Please follow me on Twitter @mpeterworth.

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