Insecurity, like blood, will out. It makes us feel so vulnerable and exposed that we eventually expose ourselves and become vulnerable. Like a scarlet sock in the load of white wash, insecurity has the irksome power to stain our speech and writing, interfering with the immaculate poise we’d like to project.
First, beware overcompensation. Nothing announces an inferiority complex like the bugle of self-promotion. In a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science (described by Wray Herbert), researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard report that people at the edges of a given group are more likely to use language that emphasizes their membership in the group. Central figures are less likely to assert their belonging.
One study compared the websites of top universities and top master’s degree universities. All the schools have graduate education programs, unlike “mere” colleges, which teach undergraduates only. But the researchers thought the master’s institutions might be less secure in their status, since they don’t hand out Ph.D.s. Volunteer judges kept track of how often each website referred to its institution by name (“Harvard”) and how often it alluded to “the university” or “Harvard University.” The results: Master’s universities invoked their prestigious university-ness more often than universities that offered Ph.D.s. Worrying that you stand at the periphery of a privileged group makes you want to emphasize that you really do belong.
Next, the researchers conducted the same analysis on the websites of big and small international airports. International airports enjoy a higher status than domestic ones, so the hypothesis was that the smaller international airports would defensively underscore their globalism, whereas large international airports would adopt the careless hauteur of Harvard You-Know-What. Lo and behold: While the smaller airports used “international” in 70 percent of all self-references, the heavies employed it in fewer than half.
Finally, the researchers returned to academia, those halls aswarm with precisely coded language and the affairs of the ego. They asked a sample of Harvard students to list “things you think of” when either describing their school to others or imagining it in the privacy of their own heads. The same went for a group of University of Pennsylvania students. The test was whether Harvard kids used the august phrase “Ivy League” more or less frequently than the Penn kids, given Harvard’s reputation as the quintessential Ivy League college and Penn’s as the league’s red-headed stepchild. Consistent with the other studies, the Penn students were much more likely to invoke that hallowed circle of institutions than their Harvard peers.
Wait, you may be saying. Does this explicit labeling have to stem from insecurity, or might it simply seek to resolve ambiguity? We assume that big sprawling airports offer international flights. Smaller airports may simply have an interest in informing people when they supply services that aren’t self-evident or intuitive. Likewise, if not everyone knows or remembers that Penn belongs to the Ivy League, then there are practical reasons to spotlight the association.
Yet the researchers’ interpretation of their findings feels at least partially correct to me. I remember screaming my lungs sore for my swim team as a kid, even inventing my own cheers about the Edgemoor Dolphins. Why? Because I was a terrible swimmer, with the aquatic mobility of a suitcase. Not for me the languid nonchalance of the freestyle record-breakers, with their sleepy-eyed assurance that their belonging could go unsaid. I had to prove my Dolphin-ness. In the same way, that telltale understatement—“I went to school in Boston”—is aggravating precisely because, by design, it oozes the insouciance of royalty.
Grandiosity and narcissism are often seen as giveaways for low self-confidence, and these two features of insecure speech—overcompensation and a focus on me—help explain why. (“It’s like you’re … I don’t know, in love with yourself,” a character tells the deeply damaged protagonist of Diana Spechler’s Skinny. “Self-absorption is different from self-love,” she replies defensively, limning a distinction that sometimes evades us.)
Insecurity expresses itself not just in what you say, but how you say it. Anecdotally, colleagues told me about lowering their voices to seem more authoritative in vulnerable moments, or reaching for loftier vocabulary words. (Seth Stevenson has written about “bubble vocabulary,” or “words on the edge of your ken” that have a way of sneaking out in illustrious company.) Sociologists even have a term for how people modify their speech production to access the power they believe might elude them otherwise: linguistic insecurity.
As Slate’s Lexicon Valley explained last year, linguistic insecurity occurs when people feel that their use of language marks them as inferior. They therefore seek—consciously or not—to “borrow prestige” by coopting a different conversational style. The linguist William Labov first observed it in the 1960s. He noticed that the New York upper class tended to pronounce its r’s, whereas the working class was more likely to drop r’s at the end of words and before vowels. Speculating that employees at higher-end department stores would want to mimic the power and dignity of their well-heeled clientele, Labov thought that perhaps workers at Saks Fifth Avenue would enunciate more r’s than workers at the discount shop S. Klein. So he asked assistants at each store questions that elicited the answer “fourth floor,” and listened to who replied “fawth flaw.” Sure enough, far more S. Klein employees dropped theirr’s than Saks employees.
What convinced Labov that linguistic insecurity—rather than pure class division—was at play? He cunningly asked each worker to say the catchphrase twice, by pretending he hadn’t heard or understood the first time. And he found that, of the Saks assistants who initially left off the r, many corrected themselves on take two. In other words, they were more likely to answer “fourth floor” when a customer drew attention to their speech.
Labov’s experiment suggests that punctilious attention to “proper” usage may come from a place of insecurity. The extreme form of this is hypercorrection, in which “a real or imagined grammatical rule is applied in an inappropriate context, so that an attempt to be ‘correct’ leads to an incorrect result.” (Think substituting “you and I” for “you and me” as the object of a sentence, or all the stilted uses of whom.) Labov and his successors found that people hypercorrect most in moments of self-consciousness—when switching into a shaky second language or addressing a crowd. Perhaps their zeal to “get it right” is just another version of the desire for belonging: You don’t need a linguistics degree to see analogies between the aspirational rhoticity of Saks workers—at the fringes of a world of glittering wealth—and the self-labeling pretensions of master’s universities and small international airports.
Notably, there are a few verbal tics that we mistakenly think index insecurity, even though they don’t. These (mostly feminine) quirks—uptalk, vocal fry—are often subtle expressions of power, innovativeness, or upward mobility. In fact, Adam Gopnik recently wrote about how verbal fillers like “um” and “you know” underscore a speaker’s conscientiousness, her sensitivity to the details she must, for reasons of economy, leave unsaid. So, uh, if you want to come across as confident, don’t shy away from a little gravel in your voice, or from lilting upward at the end of your sentences? But you should stick to second- and third-person pronouns (and the imperative mode!). And remember that excessively formal language shan’t help your cause. Go Dolphins!
By Katy Waldman