Given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.
For some years Rod Hart at the University of Texas has been using software to “read” large quantities of presidential speeches to discover characteristic patterns of phrasing. One category simply codes how many times the speaker is self-referential, using “I” verses “we,” “you,” or “us.” The overuse of “I” has always been a reasonably reliable indicator of how self-focused and self-absorbed a person is. By inference, we can wonder if such a person needs their communication partner to be anything more than a passive foil. Richard Nixon scored high as a self-referential speaker, as did Gerald Ford. Nixon was so self-focused that he would sometimes talk about himself in the third person, as in his comment to the California press that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Psychotherapists are especially tuned to hearing this kind of retreat into the self, often interpreting a string of self-referential statements as evidence that an individual is locked into their a very narrow and personal frame of reference. This is especially evident if a person has a partner but never uses the more inclusive “we,” or if the singular form is used as perhaps an unconscious way to distance the individual from family or friends. There are exceptions, but we expect such an individual to be less able to sympathize, identify with others, or listen with useful accuracy.
Some cultural wags have observed that societies such as ours, with its overriding emphasis are on the individual are by definition narcissistic. Contrasting Chinese or Japanese norms tend to favor first consideration for the collective good. So it’s a common complaint that in America personal needs often trump concerns for what would help a group or community. At its worst, this can lead to what the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “private wealth and public squalor.”
It strikes me that our focus on individuals and their happiness is both the glory and curse of American life. A local college advertises for students with the misplaced slogan, “It’s all about you.” A bank ad a few years ago proudly showed an obviously wealthy executive suitably ensconced in a high-floor office filled with mahogany and glass. The caption that went with this pitch for a setting up a “wealth management” account was the breathtakingly myopic, “You did it all yourself.”
Really? What were the ad’s copywriters smoking when they wrote this?
Only persons totally in love with themselves could be so blind to the many forms of support—parents, mentors, schools, service sector workers keeping our national infrastructure more or less in tact—who played their part in helping the rest of us enact out versions of the American Dream.
As we choose our words we need to ask whether we’ve earned the right to be exclusively self-referential. That privilege is surely evident if we are talking about our feelings and opinions. We are the only ones that can own them. But given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.