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Why the word "I" causes Hillary Clinton so much trouble

Hillary Clinton Joins NY Gov. Cuomo For $15 Minimum Wage Rally In NYC Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In an interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush, Hillary Clinton said something pretty interesting about gender and pronouns. She says it took her years to get comfortable with using the word "I" instead of words like "he," "she," or "we," and to directly ask people to vote for her instead of just appealing to collective ideals. And this tendency, she said, "may be gender-linked."

SEC. CLINTON: Well, you know, and some of this may be personal to me —

GLENN THRUSH: Yeah.

SEC. CLINTON: — and some of it, from all the literature I've read, may be gender-linked.

GLENN THRUSH: Oh, really?

SEC. CLINTON: Yes. So, for example, when I did my announcement with Daniel Patrick Moynihan on his farm —

GLENN THRUSH: Pindars Corners.

SEC. CLINTON: right? —

GLENN THRUSH: Right.

SEC. CLINTON: it was incredibly hard for me to say the pronoun "I" instead of "we."

GLENN THRUSH: Right.

SEC. CLINTON: I had been a strong supporter not just of my husband but other people who I tried to get elected, tried to help in any way I could. I'm very comfortable saying, you know, "he," "she," "we." But when I had to stand up in front of people and basically say, "I'm asking for your vote," —

GLENN THRUSH: Right.

SEC. CLINTON: —"I'm telling you what I want to do," that took years [laughs].

GLENN THRUSH: Really?

SEC. CLINTON: It absolutely took years. And it was funny because a lot of people picked up on it, mostly my friends and supporters who would say, "You know, you're not campaigning for somebody else. You're actually campaigning for yourself."

GLENN THRUSH: Right.

SEC. CLINTON: And I had to really work at that. And, even today, I have to remind myself, you know, I'm asking people to vote for me.

Clinton brought this up after discussing how she's less of a "natural politician" than her husband or President Obama, and went on to talk about how she does very well in small groups and on her signature "listening tours."

These days, though, Clinton actually gets criticized for using the word "I" too much.

In both the 2008 Democratic primary against Obama and the 2016 primary against Sanders, some commentators have dinged Clinton for using first-person pronouns more often than her competitors, who often talk more about "we" or "us." CNN's Jake Tapper and Ziris Savage, for instance, recently counted the number of times Clinton said "I" or "me" in a speech — it was 44, in case you're wondering, compared with the 21 times she said "we" or "us." To some pundits, this is more proof that Clinton is a fundamentally self-centered politician.

But according to researchers, both Clinton and her critics are wrong about the use of the word "I." Clinton seems to think that the word "I" is more assertive and masculine, while her critics see it as a sign of narcissism. But using a lot of first-person pronouns isn't actually a sign of self-centeredness or even of self-confidence. And it's definitely gendered, but not in the way Clinton assumes it is.

Psychologist James Pennebaker has researched what "function words" like pronouns reveal about personality. It turns out that women use the words "I," "me," and "mine" more often than men.

Pennebaker says this is because women are "more self-attentive and aware of their internal state" than men. Women use pronouns of all kinds more often, which suggests they are more focused on people and relationships. Men, on the other hand, use more articles like "a" and "the," suggesting they talk more about concrete objects.

People also use "I" more frequently if they are "lower in status" than another person they're talking to, or if they're depressed, according to Pennebaker. First-person pronouns often show up in "hedging" phrases like "I think" or "I believe." And a person who is lying actually tends to use the word "we" more often, or use sentences that have no first-person pronoun at all.

This doesn't mean Hillary Clinton is depressed, and it doesn't mean Bernie Sanders is lying when he uses plural pronouns. It does, however, speak to some interesting and troubling gender and power dynamics.

Research shows that women face a serious double bind when they're seeking positions of power. People tend to hold women's ambition against them, whether it's for a political office or a raise at work. And since women are so often punished for assertiveness, some women may adopt more self-effacing or cautious speech patterns in response.

Women who seek power are seen as less "likable" — and Clinton can't seem to escape the conventional wisdom that she is unlikable or untrustworthy. Writer Sady Doyle argues that Clinton's popularity always takes a hit when she's first seeking a new office, but then soars again once she actually has the job and is no longer competing.

"Likability" doesn't seem like it should be a gendered concept. We judge both men and women on whether we like them at a fundamental level. But for women, "likability" is often code for something else, a vague stand-in for people's subconscious discomfort with women who defy gender norms.

Women also tend to get judged much more harshly for their personalities and mannerisms. Witness the recent kerfuffle over male pundits telling Clinton to "smile" more and stop "shouting" while seeming to give her much louder male competitors a pass.

As late-night host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out in a brilliant parody, the same critics who tell Clinton to stop shouting would probably start telling her to speak up and be more confident if she toned it down. And if Clinton used a lot fewer first-person pronouns than she does, maybe commentators would be arguing that she's not assertive enough.


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