Rick’s Diction

What do his words reveal about Gov. Perry's elusive character?

What do his words reveal about Gov. Perry's elusive character?

illustration by Joanna Wojtkowiak

Rick Perry is an elusive figure. Texas’ longtime governor rarely gives press conferences or talks to the media. On television, we frequently see him shaking hands with policemen, soldiers and cowboys or making canned statements, but we don’t hear him discuss his views or hear his stories. Even his website is devoid of anything he has written. Although we are all vaguely aware of what he stands for, most of us haven’t the faintest idea of who he is.

One of the best ways to get the measure of people is to listen to what they say and how they say it. How people use words in everyday language can help us to get a better sense of their thinking, emotional state, and general character. But for someone who studies the ways people use words, there’s no getting around it: Rick Perry is a bit of a cipher.

Very crudely, words can be broken into two broad categories—those that reflect content versus those that convey style. Content words usually include nouns, regular verbs and adjectives; they reveal the substance of a conversation. The small words that populate the space between content words are sometimes referred to as style or function words. Style words include pronouns (e.g., I, you, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, with, for), auxiliary verbs (e.g., am, has, wasn’t), and a handful of other categories.

The ways people use style words can tell us if they are honest, depressed, complex thinkers, sociable or emotionally distant. For example, George W. Bush’s interviews and press conferences revealed him to be remarkably sociable, personal and optimistic. One sign of that: He constantly referred to other people through his use of personal pronouns (he, she, they)—a sign of interest in other human beings. His frequent use of first-person singular pronouns, or I-words, suggested a highly personal way of speaking. Bush also used positive emotion words, such as happy, good or bright at very high levels. Not so with the current president. Even before his election, Barack Obama’s language hinted that he would be socially and emotionally distant. In his press conferences and interviews, he used (and continues to use) very few pronouns and emotion-related words compared to other modern presidents. So what about Perry, who may harbor ambitions to succeed Obama in 2012?

To get a solid picture of the ways a person uses words, it’s important to collect a large number of language samples. The sociable Bush spoke to the press or was interviewed almost 100 times each year he was president. Obama talks with the press only a quarter of that amount. Perry has mastered the art of not talking much at all. In his nine years as governor, Texas Observer staffer Laura Burke was able to track down only a dozen interviews by Perry (five love-fests with Fox News, four rather bland interviews with CNN, and the rest from print media). Unlike speeches, interviews are ideal to analyze because people generate their own words.

Across his interviews, Perry comes across as far more socially and emotionally distant than either Bush or even Obama. One of the most revealing words in the English vocabulary is the word “I.” People who use I-words at high rates tend to be more personal, honest and self-effacing. In their interviews and press conferences, 3.5% of Bush’s words and 3.3% of Obama’s words were I-words, compared to fewer than 2.5% of Perry’s. Such a low rate of I-words can reflect self-confidence, arrogance, or someone who is hiding something.

Most people who have been elected president in the last 50 years have been emotionally expressive. Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr. and Reagan all used both positive emotions and negative emotions at a relatively high rate when talking with people in the press. For example, 4.7% of Bush’s words were positive in tone. Obama stands out as one of the least emotionally expressive presidents in modern time with only 3.8% of his words being positive. But with Rick Perry, we may have hit a new low—only 3.5% are positive. The same pattern holds with negative emotion words—Bush by far the highest, Obama very low, and Perry even lower.

Perry, Bush and Obama are all smart men. Nevertheless, they tend to think somewhat differently. Compared with both Bush and Obama, Perry is more cautious. Much of his speech is punctuated with negations—no, not, never. He frequently points to actions that cannot or should not be taken. In part, this is perhaps a feature of anyone who seeks to run for a governmental office with an anti-government message: “Vote for me because I won’t let government do what governments do.”

Why does Rick Perry want to be governor, and perhaps president? Psychologists have long argued that people differ in their underlying needs for achievement, affiliation and power. Obama, for example, expresses a high need for achievement in his press conferences and speeches. He uses high rates of words like try, succeed and strive. Being a senator and president undoubtedly fulfills his achievement needs. Bush was also high in a need for affiliation and achievement—and exceptionally high in his need for power. One can detect a need for power by listening to people’s use of power words such as control, dominant, leader or demand. Someone with high power desires needs to make it clear who is in command and who isn’t. (He might even refer to himself as “The Decider.”)

Perry is an outlier—he seems to be almost need-free. His language is low in words that capture any of the dimensions of achievement, affiliation and power.  In other words, he is not as blatantly eager to be successful as either Bush or Obama nor is he nearly as needy for friends or power as Bush.  What motivates him? Linguistically, his references to Texas, Texans, the state and Austin appear in virtually all of his interviews and speeches. Perhaps he is guided by an inordinately strong identification
with Texas. 

The ways Perry uses language suggest an emotionally detached person who isn’t driven by the forces that we see in most ambitious politicians. Nevertheless, his constant references to Texas undoubtedly appeal to a large segment of the state. This profile is one that is hard to imagine would sell well on the national level, where the scrutiny of the press would be unrelenting. Perry’s Texas strategy of avoiding debates, interviews, press conferences, and other venues where he reveals himself appears to be working as he runs for re-election as governor. Floating on the same inner tube to get into the White House, however, may lead him into some rough waters. 


James W. Pennebaker is professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research papers can be accessed at www.psy.itexas.edu/Pennebaker. His upcoming book on language and personality will be published by Bloomsbury Press in August 2011.

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