Talking to Oneself in Third Person
– Khadeeja Rana
We all do self-talk, but who in the world talks to themselves in third person?! Yes you heard it right Talking to oneself in third person is a thing. In literature, its called illeism, derived from Latin ille meaning “he, that”. It is basically the act of referring to oneself in the third person instead of first person. Illeism is sometimes used in literature as a stylistic device. In real life usage, illeism can reflect a number of different stylistic intentions or involuntary circumstances.
Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, studies self-talk, the introspective conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves. Through his research, Kross has found that people who don’t refer to themselves in the first person during self-talk have an easier time dealing with stressful situations. Basically, treating ourselves as though we’re other people can change how we think, feel and behave. Non-first-person self-talk is actually a research topic, as Kross did an experiment to evaluate meaning and value of the language we use when we communicate with ourselves and how people use different styles of self-talk during stressful tasks. The experiment required participants to practice self-talk before and after delivering speeches. The participants were divided into two groups: first person and non-first-person. Members of the first-person group used “I” statements to guide their introspection. Members of the non-first-person group did not use the first-person perspective.
They found out that the non-first person group delivered better speeches, with more ease and comfort, than first-person participants. Additionally, they saw distinct trends emerge in the two groups during self-talk. The non-first-person group gravitated toward more positive messages — when addressing themselves by name or as “you,” they built themselves up, like supportive friends do for one another before a nerve-wracking experience. Members of the first-person group, on the other hand, were harder on themselves and expressed more worry, shame and doubt over their speeches, both before and after they took the stage.
On the whole, first-person group members got more worked up about stressful situations, performed worse in those situations and had more trouble bouncing back after the fact. Non-first-person participants, however, adopted more I-can-do-it attitude and exhibited better self-control while under stress.
This psychobabble is a useful coping mechanism when under stress. Most of us are better at giving advice to other people than to ourselves. By fine-tuning the language we use during self-talk, Kross believes we can gain enough emotional distance from our problems to become our own sages. “When people are feeling anxious or stressed, they can try talking to themselves internally using their own names,” he said. “Our data shows that when you do that, it enhances the ability to read more rationally into situations, which improves people’s ability to control their thoughts, feelings and behavior under stress.” It can be safely said that talking to yourself in third person can be used to empower ourselves with positive self suggestions and pep talk.
The exploration doesn’t end here. Another psychologist Elsa Ronningstam, associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of ‘Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality’ says; referring to yourself in the third person creates distance between “I” and “he.” So if you have an exaggerated view of how great you are, you could be using this distance to make yourself even bigger. Or, if you’ve achieved major success suddenly, using the third person could be a way to adjust to the bigger role that’s been assigned to you. It’s a way to enlarge yourself to fit that role. It could hence be used to inflate self-esteem, but also pave way for narcissism.
An interesting cultural aspect is with young children in Japan who commonly refer to themselves by their own name; a habit probably picked from their elders who would normally refer to them by name. This is due to the normal Japanese way of speaking, where referring to another in the third person is considered more polite than using the Japanese words for “you”. However as the children grow older they normally switch over to using first person references for themselves. Japanese idols also may refer to themselves in the third person so to give off the feeling of childlike cuteness.
Speaking of children, one might ask, why does Elmo from Sesame Street refer to himself in the third person? Won’t this be teaching children improper English? While these concerns might be pertinent, but in our defense, Elmo mimics the behavior of many preschoolers; like 3-year-olds, he doesn’t always have the skills or knowledge to speak proper English.
Another increasingly popular use of illeism in common speech is as sarcasm, used when a person is being spoken about by other people present as if he weren’t there. For example, Arsalan and Bilal having a conversation about Khalid: “Did you hear about Khalid?” to which Khalid being present there, interrupts with “Khalid can hear you, you know.”
Talking in third person about oneself to other people, or self talk is basically fun, and what’s even better; it has some usefulness as well. Next time you are talking to yourself don’t hesitate to refer to yourself by your name.