What Our Most Used Words Say About Us
November 24, 2015
Every so often, people’s Facebook feeds explode with a new viral sensation — a personality quiz, an ice-bucket challenge, a changed profile background. The most recent fad is a quiz to let you see a word cloud of your “most used words on Facebook.”
On one level, it’s a little bit odd. After all, we had already decided what we posted and how we phrased it. (A note of caution – if you decide to try the quiz, it requires you to give access to a lot of information.) We got to pick the words we used to create our social media presence, so what more is there to learn?
Well, actually, the words themselves are not what we’re really interested in. Instead, what we are truly curious about is how the words we use reflect our personality. And that’s something that warrants a deeper look.
James Pennebaker is a psychologist who has studied how our words offer a mirror onto who we are, and is the author of the book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. He has exercises to help us discover just how perceptive we are, how similarly our language is to someone else’s, or what our tweets say about us. Pennebaker says, “Our words leave indelible fingerprints of personality, our relationships and backgrounds, and even our plans for the future.”
As the saying goes, “Words create worlds,” so we want to know how our words impact ourselves and our friends. And since words can have great power, Pennebaker’s greatest contribution to writing is what he calls “writing to heal,” which helps people during times of great upheaval. He notes,
“You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are — our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”
We have a need to create the narrative of “who we are,” and that was evident as people shared their word cloud on Facebook. At least on my feed, many people added a personal status that created a story about the two or three most prominent words (“It’s great that ‘one’ and love’ are right in the center!”)
After all, it’s not just the words we use, but how we use them that helps us understand ourselves. And if we can gain a deeper comprehension of our personality, we can more easily heal, grow and learn.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he's written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter.
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