Thursday, January 19, 2012

More proof that lying is pointless

A few months back, I won a book from the Goodreads firstreads program, entitled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us.

Now, a normal person wouldn't enter themselves in a drawing for a free copy of this book, because, believe it or not, grammar doesn't generally stimulate excitement. And seriously, what secrets could pronouns possibly have that would be remotely interesting?

I, however, am not normal; any sign of words, even discussion of the most boring words in the English language, sets off my nerd radar. So I was quite giddy when I was informed that I would be receiving a free copy of this book in 6-8 weeks.

The book proved to be a fascinating read. I think even those who don't know what a pronoun is might have been mildly interested. In a nutshell, the author, James Pennebaker (cool name, by the way), argues that the nothing words of language--pronouns, articles, etc. (that's words like "he," "them," "it," "the," and "an" for those who speak English but prefer not to classify the words into formal categories)--reflect who we are, what motivates us, and how we think. The point Pennebaker repeatedly makes is not that words shape us, but that the little words we use--not the exciting words like "firetruck," "magic," and "spontenaetousness" (my boss made that one up)--that no one notices act as sneaky mirrors into our personalities.

This means that by analyzing how often a person uses "I" or the number of times "the" is used, a computer program can determine whether the writer is male/female, happy/depressed, lying/telling the truth, a leader/follower, among other things. It's not an exact science, obviously, but that's not the point; the point is that we give people clues about ourselves all the time without even knowing it, even if we want to keep those clues hidden.

If the word analogy fails to capture your interest, here's another analogy that sort of doesn't have to do with words: handwriting.

Last night my company had its holiday party (I thought it was rather smart to have the party after the chaos of the holidays), and for our "entertainment" they invited a handwriting specialist to analyze everyone's handwriting. Simply by looking at a person's handwriting, this woman could tell you all sorts of stuff about that person, from personality quirks to religious/philosophical beliefs.

To complete this exercise, she had everyone write out a ridiculous paragraph about monkeys and purple people eaters, and then she came around and gave everyone an evaluation.

Again, it was surprisingly accurate. She knew for certain that I am stubborn, very selective about my friends, a good listener, detail oriented, and good with my hands, for example. A few of her comments were way off--like the injury that I apparently procured on my left leg years ago--but my handwriting, just like my choice of words, further betrayed me by giving someone else clues into what's really going on underneath the facade.

That little activity prompted further discussion at our table regarding other methods people use to analyze you, focusing on eyes, palms, and a variety of other things.

So basically, there is no point trying to lie or keep certain aspects of your life hidden because your brain is actively trying to betray you.

And by the way, my handwriting analysis also revealed that I am very secretive.

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