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The language of status, power and leadership

Growing a business is about building relationships. Knowing you need to meet new people and make new connections, how often do you find yourself in a room with strangers, many of whom already know each other? You need to quickly determine how these groups work.

Consciously or not, we humans automatically start figuring out who is in charge, who else is new, and where we fit in. We accomplish this by attending to both verbal and nonverbal cues. Successful business people are quite good at observing and, with enough experience and/or training, identifying and responding to the “high-status” people in the room. Let’s look at some of the ways they do it.

Recent research offers insights into how we know so much about each other so quickly. Judith Hall of Northeastern University has identified a small cluster of behaviors linked to status: 1. Loudness: High-status people tend to talk more loudly than lower-status people. 2. Interruptions: High-status people are more likely to interrupt others than are lower-status speakers. 3. Physical Closeness: Higher-status people tend to stand or sit more closely to others than do those relatively lower. 4. Openness: Higher-status people have a more open body orientation, meaning their arms or legs extend out more.

Hall warns us, however, that some non-verbal cues are more or less trustworthy depending on context. She points out that loudness is only a modest predictor of dominance when people are talking to others in the same social class. And when people of different social classes are talking with each other, persons from the lower class may speak more loudly.

How about language as an indicator of status? According to author and researcher James W. Pennebaker, “The words people use in their conversations, emails, and letters predict where they rank in the social hierarchy surprisingly well.” Pennebaker, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us” says, “The single dimension that separates the high-status from the low-status speaker is pronouns.”

How a speaker uses the pronouns I, we, and you consistently reveals status. These words reveal the center of the speaker’s attention. When you hear “I,” the speaker is, of course, focusing on himself. A speaker using “you” is focusing externally on the listeners. You might be surprised to learn that those higher in the social hierarchy use I, me, and my at much lower rates than people of lower status. Instead, they frequently use first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) as well as you and your. Start noticing your own communications and how you shift from using I to we or we to I depending on the status of the person to whom you are talking or writing.

Other interesting studies involving gaze and attention show that people who are more dominant tend to look at their listeners when they speak, but look away while listening. Lower-status people tend to do the opposite; they focus on the speaker when listening, but look away when talking. That might surprise you as our culture tells us that we’ll be perceived to be untrustworthy if we fail to maintain eye contact.

We’re learning that our almost (but not quite) invisible habits of speaking and listening are more revealing of our relative status and power than we might have imagined. By paying attention to the pronouns that you and your roomful of new friends are using, you’ll have a deeper understanding of those relationships. You might also want to consider your use of pronouns in your marketing and advertising messages. How much is “I”? How much is “we? How much is “us”?

Thanks to James W. Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns http://www.secretlifeofpronouns.com.

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, CreativeCore Media, in Algonquin are marketing, communication, management and training consultants who help small business and non-profits overcome the marketing and motivational myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. AnneBob@CreativeCore.com – www.NLPeople.com.

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