Seemingly minor word choices can reveal a great deal about a person’s state of mind. Here are three examples:
1. Say you hire a woman to come in and run your company. At first, she will refer to the company and team in the second or third person. “You guys should think about this.” When she starts saying “we” and “us” — her use of personal pronouns — you know she feels committed. Also check use of personal pronouns when listening to consultants talk about a client to assess how close to the client they consider themselves.
2. I recently met a serial entrepreneur friend who is starting a new company. I asked him, “What’s the business?” He replied, “Well, the day one idea is….” The phrase day one idea is telling: he knows how often the idea for a business changes over time, and he’s ready for it.
3. In this radio dialogue with Eliot Spitzer and Tyler Cowen on the financial crisis, Spitzer at one point jumps in after Cowen and says, “You’re right, Tyler.” He then moves on to make his point. The implication here is that Spitzer is the arbiter of right and wrong on a complex topic; a more modest response would have been “I agree” or “I think you’re right.” What’s being revealed is arrogance.
These examples are not “slips of tongue” — or Freudian slips — but rather subtle, intentional choices of language.
There was a meme circulating around the blogosphere a few months back around “superpowers.” The idea is that everyone has a superpower — or some unique skill. Brad Feld’s is being able to sleep on any seat in an airplane, the whole flight.
Mine? Here’s one: after a couple hours of talking to someone I can tell you their favorite phrases and words. Favorite = most commonly used. For maybe my closest 20 friends I can tell you off the top of my head their favorite words. After reading a long book, I can tell you the author’s two or three favorite words. Memory related to language doesn’t, alas, afford superpower reading comprehension or writing abilities. But it does make it easier to connect with someone, inasmuch as I can subtly mirror their vernacular.