“Third person (noun): The form of pronouns and verbs that people use when speaking or writing about other people.” –Cambridge Dictionary
After attending journalism school and working in the media industry on-and-off since high school, I have never encountered one instance of a reporter writing a straight news article about themselves; let alone in third person. Much like this piece, a column, one often documents personal experiences and writes in first person; being much averse to “I” and “me” pronouns, it’s something I try to do sparingly. However, since taking on an editor role for the past couple years, could not help but notice how common it is for local writers to pen pieces about themselves in third person.
First and foremost, writing about yourself in a news article is in itself a conflict of interest. The publication would not be a credible institution if the “news” presented included reporters writing about themselves (some even quoting themselves). It was as if I were to write an article that read: “Paulo Loreto Lim is the writer behind the Expat vs. Balikbayan column and he is very diligent in his work” – it comes off as both pompous and self-aggrandizing.
For some, yes, the adjectives fit; but for others, the entire concept of sounding self-important goes completely unnoticed.
Chris Bourn wrote an article for MEL Magazine last April about people who refer to themselves in third person, making references to Lebron James, who said during a TV interview, “I wanted to do what was best for Lebron James and what Lebron James was going to do to make him happy.”
He begins by defining the word illeism, which means an act of referring to oneself in the third person.
“The usual context in which illeism appears is when people are signaling their own power or status,” Bourn explained.
He quotes psychotherapist and writer Kim Schneiderman, who said such behavior carries “a tinge of self-importance and grandiosity.”
“When you use the third person, it’s like you’re tricking your protective, censoring ego into thinking you’re writing about somebody else,” she explained.
A 2015 piece for the BBC also quoted Schneiderman in differentiating types of illeism.
“Thinking about yourself in third person has been shown to be healthy,” she explained. “What’s less normal is going from thinking to talking about yourself in third person.”
The MEL article also looks into a 2014 study by University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross, who interviewed a test group and had half speak in first person and the other in third person. The study found those who spoke in third person came off more confident. The professor concluded, “[third person speech] leads them to appraise social-anxiety-provoking events.”
Is that what it is? A coping mechanism?
NBC’s Today Show looked into the same issue last July, citing Michigan State University associate psychology professor Jason Moser who conducted studies similar to Kross’ work, saying, “[Third person speech] switches you to a different mode of experiencing negative emotions.” According to the report, he believes third person may be used as a way of overcoming phobias.
Looking at the matter from a social viewpoint, blogger Karen Marston, who writes the Untamed Writing blog, discussed the matter in 2015, where she laid out the reasons why talking about oneself in third person is a bad idea.
“The reason the third person makes you seem untrustworthy is obvious: it’s because you’re not being honest,” she wrote. “You’re trying to make yourself sound bigger or better or more impressive than you are.”
In addition, her message to those who choose to discuss themselves in the third person: “You sound like an a**hole.”
Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, wrote a piece for the New York Times in 2005 about speaking in the third person, where he says it is a type of identity disorder. Referring to a patient who exhibited such traits, he said, “He seemed fake, as if playing a role.”
“I believe [the disorder] has its roots in a society that has drifted free from reality,” Ablow explained. “[They] are, at most, participant-observers in their own lives, with little genuine emotion.”
The various studies on the subject have shown speaking in the third person can be a useful tool in encouraging oneself, a way of getting ones thoughts in order and finding clarity. Examples include athletes revving themselves up for an event; primarily in the context of person thoughts. However, it reaches into a different realm when that act is used in speech or writing.
For a news writer to refer to themselves in the third person is both deceptive and arrogant. Readers are deceived because they are under the impression the article is being presented objectively and by using a news platform to spout about oneself, but shielding it with third person pronouns, reveals a lot about the writer./WDJ