Illeism, or Sillyism?

Who would have thought that it might be good to talk about yourself in the third person? As if you weren’t you, but him? As if you weren’t actually there, and anyway, you didn’t want yourself to find out you were talking about him in case it seemed like, well, gossip? I mean, only royalty, or the personality-disordered, are able to talk like that without somebody phoning the police.

Illeism, it’s called -from the Latin ‘he’- and it’s an ancient rhetorical technique that was used by various equally ancient personages -like, for example, Julius Caesar in the accounts he wrote about his exploits in various wars. It’s still in occasional use, apparently, but it stands out like a yellow MacDonald’s arch unless you’re a member of a small cabal, sworn to secrecy.

Now that I mention it, I remember trying it once when I was very young, and blamed our cat for scattering cookies all over the floor; but I suppose that doesn’t count because my mother instantly realized I was actually using the third-person-singular in its grammatical sense, and sent me to my room for fibbing -without the cat. I didn’t even get a hug for my clever use of ancient rhetoric.

The episode kind of put me off third-personism until I read a little more about it in an adaptation of an article originally published by The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, by David Robson and edited for Aeon. He is a science journalist and a feature writer for the BBC: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-speaking-to-yourself-in-the-third-person-makes-you-wiser

It seems illeism can be an effective tool for self-reflection. And, although you may be tempted to opt for simple rumination – which is ‘the process of churning your concerns around in your head… research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision making under pressure, and are at a substantially increased risk of depression…’

Robson was intrigued by the work of the psychologist Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada writing in PsyArxiv which suggests that third-person thinking ‘can temporarily improve decision making… [and] that it can also bring long-term benefits to thinking and emotional regulation.’ -presumably related to the perspective change allowing the user to bypass -or at least appreciate- their previously held biases.

Grossmann, it seems, studies wisdom, and [w]orking with Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan in the United States…  found that people tend to be humbler, and readier to consider other perspectives, when they are asked to describe problems in the third person.’

Hmm…

He read the article with a fair soupçon of wariness. Might this not, he wondered, be academic legerdemain? It managed to fool Robson, but surely not he who reads with not even a hatchet to grind. He, after all, is only a retired GYN who is only accustomed to addressing freshly delivered newborns and their unique anatomical appendages with the appropriate third-person labels. It’s hard to do otherwise with the unnamed. Indeed, it had always seemed situationally germane, given the circumstances. To turn that on himself, however, might be contextually confusing -as well as suspicious.

So, his days as an accoucheur long past, he decided there would be little harm in trying it out in front of a mirror before he unleashed his full third-person on an unsuspecting face in Starbucks.

It seemed… unusual at first: he knew the individual in the reflection as well as himself, and addressing him as ‘he’ felt rude -creepy, actually. He did manage to get around the vertigo by pretending he was actually talking to a younger version of his brother, though, and ignored the fact that his brother was moving his lips at the same time and apparently not listening.

“Your brother,” he started, “is wondering if he should use the third-person approach when he is anxious about whether or not to order the sausage and egg bagel or just a cookie for breakfast at Starbucks.” A sudden thought occurred to him: “he could pretend he was sent to order it for his friend who is currently guarding a table for the two of them.”

He stared at the image in the mirror and frowned, suddenly remembering the cat-and-cookie incident.

He was uncertain where this was going. Was he supposed to ask what he -that is ‘himself’- thought about the idea? And who, exactly, would be answering? The whole thing seemed like an endless hall of mirrors, an infinite regression of Matryoshka dolls.

“Okay,” he added, to assuage the guilt he assumed he would have fibbing to the barista, “He is just trying an experiment in non-gendered, non-directional conversation to solve a personal decisional paralysis. So, he is not trying to be weird or anything. He is actually just asking for your advice: would bagel or cookie be a better breakfast?”

Suddenly, an unexpected epiphany -maybe produced by the comparative ‘better’, but nonetheless apparent in the way in which the third person had phrased his question. Of course the bagel with its protein rich contents was the ‘better’ breakfast! He was pretty sure that First-person-singular would never have seen that with such clarity –could never have seen it. Only by divorcing himself from his stomach, and mentioning it as if he were discussing a friend did it become clear.

He stepped away from his brother at the mirror and smiled to himself. He’d discovered a way of distancing himself from himself long enough to see who he was from an outside perspective. Still, there was a nagging question that kept tugging at his sleeve: who was he when he asked those questions? And did he risk permanently closing the door to the person he used to be, or was it sort of like losing himself in a story and then swapping realities when he closed the book…? But, what if he preferred what he was reading to what he was living…?

Whoa -pretty heavy stuff, that.

You know, it’s harder coming back to First-person than closing the book after a while, and I found myself switching back and forth for the longest time. I really wonder how hard Grossman and Kross had thought this through. And I wonder if Robson got caught up in their web as well. Nobody mentioned anything about collateral damage -but of course, they wouldn’t, would they?

All I can say is be careful, readers -there might be a third-person Minotaur at the end of the labyrinth.