Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Are you an illeist?

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Illeism can be used to enhance the speaker's sense of worth.Photo / Thinkstock
Illeism can be used to enhance the speaker's sense of worth.Photo / Thinkstock

I can safely say that I am not personally acquainted with any illeists. I'm not sure whether this is down to good luck or whether I have had the good sense to purge anyone who refers to themselves in the third person from my life. What an annoying habit it is. Hearing someone use "he" to talk about himself or, worse still, use his own full name for this purpose is like fingernails on a blackboard for me.

It seems to be predominantly a male habit. There are no women on this list of 11 Famous Illeists which includes Bob Dole, Elmo, Julius Caesar, Salvador Dali and Charles de Gaulle. Years ago I used to have regular meetings with an illeist. I don't think I ever really engaged with what he said; I was too busy wondering why he kept using his full name instead of "I".

I have to confess I briefly dabbled in illeism when my daughter was little. Yet phrases such as "Give the spoon to Mummy" and "Mummy loves you" are surely forgivable when your target audience is a preschooler.

Age-appropriate illeism aside, what drives an adult to speak this way to fellow grown-ups? Just as importantly, how can they not know that most people disapprove of the practice?

Esquire describes it as a "Major human flaw" and suggests that it's about control, a power play - that it's how "you indicate that the topic is not open for debate. You are speaking about facts that just so happen to include you."

Illeism can sometimes be used to denote subjugation, servitude or inferiority - as in "Your servant awaits your orders" and "This slave needs to be punished". In the Harry Potter series, Dobby the house-elf speaks of himself in the third person. Used in the military - as in "This recruit is reporting for duty, Sir" - its purpose might be to diminish the speaker's sense of himself as an individual.

Yet illeism can also be used to enhance the speaker's sense of worth. There's a pomposity, a loftiness and sense of self-importance associated with it when used in the business world or in politics. More kindly, it can perhaps be viewed as a form of self-promotion or an attempt to reinforce a name as if it was a brand. It's a tool Bob Dole was fond of using. Evidently, he once said, "I don't run around saying 'Bob Dole does this' and 'Bob Dole does that'. That's not something Bob Dole does. It's not something Bob Dole has ever done, and it's not something Bob Dole will ever do!"

It's believed illeism may also be associated with mental health issues. Perhaps it signifies the fact that someone is disconnected from themselves. "[R]eferring to oneself in the third person is often a sign of extreme narcissism," theorised one blogger. Indeed, JK Rowling's Lord Voldemort is said to have used it to indicate his "narcissism and sociopathic tendencies".

So let's summarise. Illeism may be acceptable if you are a servant, a slave, a soldier, have mental health issues - or you are addressing a toddler. Otherwise it is strictly not recommended. Well, that's this writer's opinion anyway.

What do you think about people who refer to themselves in the third person? Is it okay or does it bother you? Why do you think people do it? Do you know of any female illeists or is it mainly a manly trait?

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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