What We Can Learn from the Political I-Test

sinseeho/Adobe Stock

You can tell a lot about someone from how they communicate, including their use of language. One of the key indicators is how inclusive their language is – do they embrace the reader or listener in their communication or keep the spotlight on themselves?

For many years I have encouraged people to ‘take the I-Test’ with their own communication, checking to see how many times they use the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’ compared to more inclusive language, such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘you’ or ‘ours’. Last year somebody sent me a LinkedIn connection request where they used ‘I’ sixteen times (‘I want to connect because…’, ‘I do this….’, I want to do that…’) and didn’t reference me once.

Suffice to say, I did not accept their connection request.

When you focus solely on yourself in your communication, you send a message that you are not interested in the people you are speaking to. You just want them to focus on you.

It was interesting, therefore, to compare two statements this week from leading British politicians competing for the role of UK Prime Minister.

Wikimedia commons

Boris Johnson, so recently ousted from that role, had flown back from a holiday in the Caribbean to compete for the vacancy that had come up again following Liz Truss’s resignation. It wasn’t to be this time for Johnson, he seemingly couldn’t reach the required number of backers and had to withdraw.

In his 289-word withdrawal statement, Boris Johnson said ‘I’ twenty-one times, 7% of the time. Using ‘I’ is natural in many contexts, for example, we can’t criticise Johnson for his opening line, “In the last few days I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who suggested that I should once again contest the Conservative Party leadership”.  It is therefore more instructive to compare how many times he uses the first-person singular with the number of uses of ‘you’, ‘we’ and other more inclusive terms.

The score is 21-1, the single use of ‘we’ referencing a meeting with fellow contenders Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, not the reader. I have excluded the use of ‘You’ when used to refer to himself (“You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament”).

WikiMedia Commons

It’s interesting to contrast this with the speech made by the successful contender and new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, on taking office. In a longer statement, Sunak used ‘I’ thirty-one times in 567 words, or 5.4% of the time.

That may not appear to be a dramatic difference to Johnson’s statement until you factor in the use of inclusive language. Sunak used ‘We’, ‘You’, ‘Our’, ‘Us’, ‘Ourselves’ and ‘Yours’ twenty-two times, or just under 4% of the time. (As with Johnson’s statement, I have excluded the use of ‘You’ when effectively referring to himself.)

Both candidates used ‘I’ more than the alternatives, which is natural. But the contrast is stark and it will be interesting to see how it is reflected in Sunak’s style of governing and his popularity among the electorate.

We can all be more conscious of the language we use and seek to engage people by including them in our communication. Relationships grow when people feel that others are interested in them and we can reflect that in how we communicate with them. If you focus too much on yourself in your language, people may well feel that this reflects where your interest lies and not be drawn to get to know you better.