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Last week I wrote of a shift that's occurring in gendered pronouns: More she and her, less pronoun domination by he and him, as per a study led by Generation Me author and San Diego State psychology professor Jean M. Twenge. Twenge and her colleagues, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile of the University of Georgia, analyzed 1.2 million texts in the Google Books archive, tracking pronouns by gender in works published from 1900 to 2008. They found the he:she ratio had shifted from 3.5 male for every female pronoun between 1900 and 1945 to less than 2:1 by 2005. This, Twenge said, reflected increases in women's status over the years.

But he, she, her, him, herself, and himself are not the only pronouns in the game. A second paper by Twenge tells another story, one not about gender, but about me, you, and of course, I. In another analysis of the Google Books Archive, this time of 766,513 books published from 1960 to 2008, researchers found that "first person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us) decreased in use, first person singular pronouns (I, me) increased 42%, and second person pronouns (you, your) quadrupled"—an unbelievable 300% increase in you between 1960 and 2008. Why does this matter? In the paper, Twenge writes, "First, language use reflects the viewpoints of book authors, showing change in the values and attitudes of an influential portion of the population. Second, books may mirror a market-driven assessment of what people want to read. Thus, they capture changes in the preferences of the population of Americans who read books. Third, language use in books may be a microcosm of the language use of people living in that time."

You could probably guess that increases in you, me, and I indicate growing individualism and decreasing collectivism in American culture. Comparatively, in Asia and Latin America, Twenge told us, there's a lot less emphasis on the in favor of the we, and often pronouns are dropped—those countries reflect more of a collectivist culture as well. As for you, Twenge says, it also reflects an individualism; it means the author is speaking directly to the reader. Twenge writes in her paper, "In personal correspondence and speech, first person singular pronouns (I, me) are associated with increased individual self-focus, low status, honesty, depression, and a more personal, expressive style. Higher status people use more first person plural (we, us) and second person (you, your) pronouns." 

But she says there's room for debate about what all this means, and why, exactly, we're doing it. Are we full of ourselves and therefore constantly self-promotional? Are we deeply insecure, with a need to make ourselves feel better through self-focus, me me me

James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns—his work is mostly on spoken language as opposed to Twenge's analysis of books—found that I and me appear to reflect self-focus, yes, but also insecurity. He explained to The Atlantic Wire via email, "When people are nervous, depressed, in pain, lonely, etc, they use I-words more. When confident, arrogant, or standing back and surveying their world, they use I-words less." One may be insecure or depressed and self-focused, for example; these characteristics are not mutually exclusive.

Twenge argues that the increased use of I and me may have to do with narcissism as well—and narcissists really do think they're great; they're not insecure at all. The huge increase in you, she says, is even more complicated. "It can mean so many different things. My theory all along is that it has to do with self-help books—how to live your best life, which fits the idea of increasing individualism. The author is speaking to the individual reader and giving advice." She adds, "When people sat down to read a book in previous eras they didn’t have to feel like the author was talking to them, and now more people want that feeling. It's now very common to have you in the title." Maybe the apparent increase in memoirs reflects this hypothesis, too.

At the same time, depression has increased on a societal level, or at least, the acknowledgement and identification of it has, and it's possible the use of these pronouns captures that as well. Either way, "there’s also more self-esteem and self-expression, which are much more common in individualistic cultures. Collectivistic cultures don’t do that," Twenge says. And even in America, "people weren't as comfortable sharing personal things with the world in 1960. If someone was diagnosed with cancer, she might not say it." Now, she might tweet about it bravely, and be rightly applauded for sharing her story, the I in that case representing a community.

It's not just about the Internet or social media, though. "The '80s was when this started to take off," Twenge told me. "The Internet [as we now know it] came a bit later. But it’s all a circle. The Internet might increase the self-expression and focus, but that dictates how people use the technology." 

Further, before you jump to bemoan the state of selfish society, know that the we and us decreases are not huge—only about 10 percent, she says, a "slight decrease." (Pro tip: Studies have shown that those who use first person plural pronouns like we report greater satisfaction with their romantic relationships.) It may not be that we're decreasing in collectivism, but that we’re simply increasing in individualism. And maybe, she says, we can do both. "It seems like we’re trying to be individualistic but hang onto our collectivism, which is a good thing. I wrote a whole book about the narcissism epidemic, and clearly this is one more piece of that puzzle—but the picture across is also a more complex one, including narcissism, insecurity, and self-expression."

There are also mysteries in the data, like why overall the third-person goes down. Twenge's theory is that people find it depersonalizing, and adds, "I gave my car a name." Well, true. Who hasn't named or even gender-specified an inanimate object?

All that means there's a lot to learn from such tiny words. As Pennebaker told us, "Nobody would have ever thought that these almost-invisible words could serve as such powerful reflections of people and their relationships. The beauty of these processes is that we can now look at pronoun use of cultures and languages and begin to see how large groups of people change over time."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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