A comprehensive investigation of how our words—what we say and how we say it—reveal important insights about our behavior, emotions and personalities.
Pennebaker (Psychology/Univ. of Texas; Writing to Heal, 2004, etc.) is well-known in psychotherapy circles for his work in the way language and mental health correspond. Here, the author continues exploring this connection between emotion, behavior, perception, cognition and language with a specific focus on what he calls “stealth words,” or the small function words in our lexicon, like prepositions and pronouns, that are seemingly invisible in day-to-day speech. Pennebaker’s own research and analysis of other linguistic and psychological studies is exhaustive and includes an immense amount of computational data via analytical programs like Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (or LIWC) and methods like LSM or language style matching detection. However, the author balances his data analysis with interesting and entertaining anecdotes, examples, narratives and dialogue, and his research sampling is vast: tweets by Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey, online dating profiles, King Lear, love letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning vs. the language of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, samples of instant messaging, scenes from The Godfather, presidential press conferences and more. The author successfully demonstrates that seemingly innocuous function words—I, me, you, he, can, for, it, of, this—play a crucial role in understanding identity, detecting emotions and realizing intention; they also provide important clues about social and cultural cohesion. In addition to these varied language samples, Pennebaker investigates a wide range of situations and topics including trauma from war or abuse, social and gender inequity and relationships of power, as well as daily self-perception or self-deception. Some assertions that seem like hasty generalizations—i.e., that couples who use parallel function words are more likely to have a happy marriage—are supported with such a preponderance of evidence that they become convincing and compelling.
Essential reading for psychotherapists and readers interested in the connection between language and human behavior, emotion and perception.