By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
The language that you use matters—not only when it comes to enacting behavioral change, but also when it comes to minimizing our stress about certain situations. Professor Vishton reveals the studies and real-life examples that demonstrate this.
LeBron’s Trick for Reducing Anxiety
If you want to lower your anxiety, try changing up your language. University of Michigan Psychology Professor Ethan Kross and his collaborators have found that self-talk matters in terms of how we regulate our own emotions.
To reduce your levels of stress and anxiety about a situation, they’ve found it’s best to refer to yourself in the third person—like LeBron James. In 2010, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to play basketball with the Miami Heat.
A large proportion of the population of Cleveland was mortified, to say the least. Announcing this move on prime-time television with an audience of millions of people was—we can presume—a stressful experience. James employed a linguistic strategy that has been shown repeatedly to be effective at coping with such stress: linguistic distancing.
During his televised announcement, he said, “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.” He used the first-person pronoun “I” twice, but then quickly switched to using his name in a third-person fashion.
It was as if he were talking about someone else who happened to be named LeBron James, rather than himself. When people are in high-stress situations, they tend to do this.
Language and Social Anxiety
Kross and his colleagues have studied this in the context of social anxiety. In one study, they recruited participants and had them try to make a good first impression during a brief conversation with a stranger.
This isn’t nearly as stressful as making an announcement on national television, but meeting new people does produce a measurable increase in anxiety in most people—certainly relative to having a conversation with friends or just sitting and reading without any social interaction. The conversations were videotaped, and participants provided a rating of how anxious they were during the process.
The key experimental manipulation took place before the videotaped, first impression conversation. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a first-person condition.
For these participants, the experimenter explained that the researchers were interested in the language that people use to understand their own feelings. To explore that, the participant spent one minute reflecting on his or her feelings using the pronouns “I” and “my” as much as possible.
For example, they might say, “Why do I feel the way I do? What sorts of things affect my feelings?”
Everyone’s thoughts during this minute were up to them. The experimenter simply urged them to phrase their internal thoughts in terms of these first-person pronouns.
The procedure was the same for the other participants, who were randomly assigned to the non-first-person condition. During their one minute of introspection on their feelings, they were urged to make use of second- and third-person pronouns or to use their own names.
Power of Personal Pronouns
Two clear differences emerged from these two groups. The first-person condition reported higher levels of anxiety during those brief interactions with a stranger.
Additionally, judges rated the social performance of these participants as being worse. They used a variety of different criteria, ranging from how nervous the participant seemed, how good their vocal quality was, how often they made eye contact with the stranger, and several other aspects of their social performance.
In addition to reporting lower levels of social anxiety, these non-first-person participants performed substantially better than the first-person group—by a lot. Again, the only difference in methodology between the two groups was their use of pronouns during a one-minute introspection process prior to the meeting.
Thus, if you feel anxious about meeting with someone, especially if you want to make a good first impression, spend a minute reflecting on your feelings. Use words that describe your feelings as if you are talking about someone else:
“Peter feels a little anxious. There’s no reason for him to be worried, though; it’s just a meeting with one other person.”
If that seems strange, try saying it in second person: “You feel a little anxious about this, but there’s no reason to be worried. You’re just meeting with another human being.”
Both of these small changes in your language should make a big difference when it comes to reducing your anxiety about the situation.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.