At the same time that insecure people insist on inclusion and membership, they also presume to speak only for themselves. We know now that the linguistic expression of low confidence plays out in pronouns. Until recently, many experts believed that first-person singular referents were verbal playthings for the powerful and narcissistic, the me-me-me-me-me people who demand attention. But as James Pennebaker, a psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, has written, the pronoun “I” often signals humility and subservience. A more confident person is more likely to be surveying her domain (and perhaps considering what “you” should be doing), rather than turning inward. “Pronouns signal where someone’s internal focus is pointing,” Pennebaker told the Wall Street Journal. “The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”
Grandiosity and narcissism are often seen as giveaways for low self-confidence, and these two features of insecure speech—overcompensation and a focus on me—help explain why. (“It’s like you’re … I don’t know, in love with yourself,” a character tells the deeply damaged protagonist of Diana Spechler’s Skinny. “Self-absorption is different from self-love,” she replies defensively, limning a distinction that sometimes evades us.)
Insecurity expresses itself not just in what you say, but how you say it. Anecdotally, colleagues told me about lowering their voices to seem more authoritative in vulnerable moments, or reaching for loftier vocabulary words. (Seth Stevenson has written about “bubble vocabulary,” or “words on the edge of your ken” that have a way of sneaking out in illustrious company.) Sociologists even have a term for how people modify their speech production to access the power they believe might elude them otherwise: linguistic insecurity.
As Slate’s Lexicon Valley explained last year, linguistic insecurity occurs when people feel that their use of language marks them as inferior. They therefore seek—consciously or not—to “borrow prestige” by coopting a different conversational style. The linguist William Labov first observed it in the 1960s. He noticed that the New York upper class tended to pronounce its r’s, whereas the working class was more likely to drop r’s at the end of words and before vowels. Speculating that employees at higher-end department stores would want to mimic the power and dignity of their well-heeled clientele, Labov thought that perhaps workers at Saks Fifth Avenue would enunciate more r’s than workers at the discount shop S. Klein. So he asked assistants at each store questions that elicited the answer “fourth floor,” and listened to who replied “fawth flaw.” Sure enough, far more S. Klein employees dropped their r’s than Saks employees.
What convinced Labov that linguistic insecurity—rather than pure class division—was at play? He cunningly asked each worker to say the catchphrase twice, by pretending he hadn’t heard or understood the first time. And he found that, of the Saks assistants who initially left off the r, many corrected themselves on take two. In other words, they were more likely to answer “fourth floor” when a customer drew attention to their speech.
Labov’s experiment suggests that punctilious attention to “proper” usage may come from a place of insecurity. The extreme form of this is hypercorrection, in which “a real or imagined grammatical rule is applied in an inappropriate context, so that an attempt to be ‘correct’ leads to an incorrect result.” (Think substituting “you and I” for “you and me” as the object of a sentence, or all the stilted uses of whom.) Labov and his successors found that people hypercorrect most in moments of self-consciousness—when switching into a shaky second language or addressing a crowd. Perhaps their zeal to “get it right” is just another version of the desire for belonging: You don’t need a linguistics degree to see analogies between the aspirational rhoticity of Saks workers—at the fringes of a world of glittering wealth—and the self-labeling pretensions of master’s universities and small international airports.
Notably, there are a few verbal tics that we mistakenly think index insecurity, even though they don’t. These (mostly feminine) quirks—uptalk, vocal fry—are often subtle expressions of power, innovativeness, or upward mobility. In fact, Adam Gopnik recently wrote about how verbal fillers like “um” and “you know” underscore a speaker’s conscientiousness, her sensitivity to the details she must, for reasons of economy, leave unsaid. So, uh, if you want to come across as confident, don’t shy away from a little gravel in your voice, or from lilting upward at the end of your sentences? But you should stick to second- and third-person pronouns (and the imperative mode!). And remember that excessively formal language shan’t help your cause. Go Dolphins!