Posts I haven’t yet written

Quite a few of my posts begin with ideas that rattle around until research or mulling them over generates enough interest to get me writing.  Time for contemplation and research have been in short supply recently and are likely to be for the next week, so grabbing this moment, I decided to mention a few things I am working on that may or may not get posts of their own in the future.


With the drought on everyone’s mind, I was tempted to write a piece on the symbolism of water.  The problem is, (1) the subject is huge, (2) it’s already been done, and (3) a Star Trek episode keeps me from starting.  Every time I remember the silicon creatures who called humans, “ugly bags of mostly water,” all my attempts to stay focused and serious fail.  According to Mr. Data, it’s an accurate description of our species.  Thanks, dude.

There’s another approach to discussing water in California that centers on economics and politics.  I could discuss the millions of gallons we pour into fracking wells.  Or I could mention the president’s three hour visit to Fresno, complete with a photo-op in a dry field before jetting off to Rancho Mirage, but I don’t think I will.  If I want to get depressed over water, it’s easier just to rent Chinatown.

I’m writing a letter

Not just any letter.  I’m writing a letter of condolence to someone whose dog recently died.  It’s one paragraph forward and two back.  Those who have lost a beloved pet will understand how this letter is siphoning off most of the emotional energy I’m willing to invest in writing at this time.

Too many choices

A chain of associations based on some of my own experiences led to a fascinating but huge subject, the difficulty of having too many choices.

photo by Alexander Acker, 2010, CC BY-ND-2.0

photo by Alexander Acker, 2010, CC BY-ND-2.0

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz writes that seeking the “perfect” choice is “a recipe for misery.”  Other researchers say, “The current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness,” and “Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community.”

This kind of subject deserves elaboration, but if you don’t want to wait for me to get around to it, just Google on “too many choices” and see what you find.

I’m learning Spanish

Yup, I started last summer on Rosetta stone, for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to, or necessarily in order of importance):

  1. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
  2. Languages are supposed to be good for the brain.
  3. One night, flipping through the TV listing, it seemed like it would be fun to watch El Codico DaVinci on the Spanish station.

One of my Facebook friends who knew me back when, reminded me that in 7th grade Spanish, I was a class clown.  The reason was simple.  I believed I was “no good at languages,” and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There’s a lot of satisfaction in erasing that misperception.  I came upon the Spanish version of book I have in English yesterday and flipped through it before deciding I’d better start in the children’s section.  I wonder if they have cartoons on Saturday morning on the Spanish channels?

Meanwhile, I don’t know why mid-February should be so busy, but it is, and I have to move on to the next thing, so let me summarize this post.

  1. Water is good, though flooding is bad.
  2. Few things are harder than losing a dog.
  3. Choosing things can be iffy.
  4. Learning a language sometimes carries the kind of excitement that learning to read must have done when we were kids.

Feel free to quote me.  Until next time, when maybe I’ll manage to write a real post…

The Secret Life of Pronouns

Who knew that pronouns can predict romantic compatibility, reveal power dynamics, lying, and who will recover from trauma?  James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin has been tracking the truth of pronouns for 20 years.

James Pennebaker

He includes them in the group he calls “function words,” necessary parts of speech that are invisible to us in conversation:  the, this, though, I, and, an, there, that, he, she, where, when.  Pennebaker contrasts these with “content words,” which carry meaning and evoke images in our minds, words like, school, family, life, friends.

In a recent NPR interview, Pennebaker related that he and his students studied couples’ compatibility in the context of speed dating,  Computers proved an essential tool for analyzing results, since try as we might, we really don’t hear function words.  By entering both the transcript and the speed dating outcomes, Pennebaker’s team discovered a strong correlation between matching function word usage and the decision to get together after the first meeting.  The computer predicted who would hit it off more accurately than the couples themselves.

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.

“When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way,” he says. “And it’s one of these things that humans do automatically.  They aren’t aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of ‘I, and, the,’… you can see it. It’s right there.”

The other discovery Pennebaker discussed in the interview centers on power dynamics.  When two people with different status or power interact, the subordinate uses “I” much more frequently.  Pennebaker suggests self consciousness is the cause, concern about how we’ll be perceived.

Finally, Pennebaker weighed in on the My Fair Lady question:  if we change our language, do we change?  After 20 years of research, Pennebaker says no.  Change who you are and your language will change, but not vice-versa.

What’s interesting is that several people I respect claim that changing your handwriting changes personality.  Organize your penmanship, for instance, and other aspects of your life will follow.  This suggests the added visceral dimension makes the difference.  Makes you wonder – The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.  Probably doesn’t work as well on a keyboard…

You can read about Pennebaker’s research in The Secret Life of Pronouns, 2011: