The kids needed a ride into school this morning. On the way I tortured them by listening to NPR. Depending on the show, I can get away without too much eye-rolling. Car Talk sometimes makes the Catbird laugh, because those guys just have so much fun. Neither of them likes Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, and NOBODY but me likes A Prairie Home Companion. Anyway, I heard something this morning and kept turning it up to hear over my increasingly-loud car, because I thought it was interesting. To my surprise, the kids thought so, too.
They interviewed James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us. The part that interested me in particular was Pennebaker's discussion of language related to positions of power. In short, people in the power position use the word "I" less. Pennebaker quoted some of his e-mails in which a grad student approached him (or responded to his approach to her) about working on a project. In a forty-word e-mail, she used "I" or "me" 5 times. In Pennebaker's response? None. Similarly, Pennebaker's e-mail to an esteemed colleague used "I" as many times as his grad student. The Famous Professor used "us" once, but no "I".
Now, it could be that in both cases, the 'underling' was trying to sell something. The grad student was trying to sell her services, Pennebaker was selling a colleague on a conference. It's sort of like a cover letter for a job, where you have to talk about yourself, thus you are going to use "I" more frequently. Pennebaker's website, The Secret Life ofPronouns, includes an I-Test. I scored a four, even after hearing this story on NPR. It was an interesting story for a Monday morning, and may well be something to think about while writing.
On another note, I took a bit of a slap over at An Agent's Inbox contest on Mother. Write. (Repeat.) last week. One of comedy's great set-up lines is, "What's the worst that can happen?" Well, for me, the worst that can happen did happen, as Ms. Shea wrote, "This query didn't engage me further than the first paragraph."
Actually, the worst that can happen would have been for Ms. Shea to say, "I didn't even have to read your query to know you are the worst writer ever! Do us all a favor and cut off your hands so you can never type another word!" Even in my worst nightmares, I didn't expect that to happen, but this was pretty bad, at face value.
But then again, how bad can it be? Had I queried Ms. Shea through normal channels, what would I have gotten? Either a no reply or a form rejection, neither of which would have told me anything. Once the initial sting wore off, I realized even a tough, blunt response like Ms. Shea's is better than a standard rejection, because it does help me understand where I messed up. So, yes, it stings, but it's part of the great learning experience, and I will be the better for it. Thanks again to Krista for running the contest, and for Ms. Shea for participating. That's about it for now, see you at the end of the week.