When It's Okay to 'We'

Communicate Like a Human: Lesson 5.


Knowing when to be we or I


When is it okay to 'we' and when is it better to 'I'?


Which pronoun is more suitable for your words?


Some may think this trivial.


Many, many others would be resolute in their opinion.


It isn’t a problem when you are referring to the specific actions that you are going to do.


But there is a grey area.


The grey area that provokes strong opinion is when you talk about opinion.


TL;DR?

 
 

Who are Alexa anyway?


Sometimes I worry about Alexa. The Echo Dot can’t be the most spacious of living spaces. It must be like an affordable flat in London’s West End. How she stretches her non-existent legs after a hard day answering my ridiculous questions, I can’t imagine.


If that wasn’t bad enough, she has more guests parading in and out of there than a busy hooker. Ask her a question about another entity and chances are she has someone else on hand to respond. Someone more knowledgeable than her. Often with first-hand relevant experience.


Want to know about Christmas? Look, here's Santa.


Easter-related query? Listen to the high-pitched squeaks of a bunny bouncing up.


There seems no end to her most diverse group of dinner party guests. They range from the fictional (Yoda) to the semi-fictional (Gordon Ramsay).


If you’re in the US, Alexa will vacate the premises entirely and allow Samuel L Jackson to take residence in her place.


She also uses her supporting cast to bolster her own answers, as demonstrated by the backing singers we are made to endure throughout Alexa's introduction song.

 

The representative pronoun


You may question the relevance of this to the Communicate Like a Human series. We aren’t suggesting when to call in your celebrity pals.


Instead, it prompted thoughts of a dilemma many of us face when writing or presenting for an employer.


I was told early in my career that my writing should always be on behalf of the company, not myself. If I ever used the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in a document, it would be returned, adorned with red pen marks and probably a ‘see me’.


I soon avoided any pronoun that may audaciously imply the opinion or idea stated belonged to me and me alone.


Having got into the habit of doing this, I was taken aback when derided by a later employer for seeming not to have an original bone in my body.

 
A close up of an annotated brain



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Nobody listens to we


The more you use 'we', the more you abstain from responsibility.


You are casting yourself in the role of messenger. Placing it in the minds of your audience that though you may enable, you don't create. You don't lead.


Over time, this becomes the role you always play. It becomes more difficult to have your suggestions taken seriously.


If you feel you often get talked over in meetings, your ideas dismissed without being considered, a lack of the first-person pronoun is likely to be a factor.


Of course, it won't be the only reason.


But it will give a subliminal signal that won’t help. It is also something you can do easily change.

 

It's all about I


That doesn't mean you should auto-correct every 'we' to an 'I'.


Even if you are the smartest cookie in the barrel, overuse of the personal pronoun conveys arrogance. You seem to be positioning yourself as more important than everyone, including your audience.


If it really is only you, then it is still worth looking for opportunities to widen the idea to one that you have discussed with others. Or mentioning research that you have done to back up your own opinions.


Your use of the first-person also says things about you that may be more surprising. You can read more on those in Lesson 8: First-Person Pronouns for Depressives, Women and Liars.

The simplest approach is to aim for an equal split in your writing. Reference others when it will bolster expertise, scale, or gravitas. Then make sure you specify your own action or role the same number of times.

 

Avoid proxy pronouns


Pronouns only exist to take the place of nouns and reduce laborious repetition. Most of the time, you should be able to replace your third-person pronoun with the original name. If you can't, then you may be hiding a lack of knowledge.


You should be specific and name the other person or people at least twice. Once to introduce before switching to a pronoun - which is pretty standard. And at least once more after that. It increases certainty. It avoids giving the impression that you don’t know the names of your colleagues. Or that you’re lying.


There is a tendency in many of us to replace the pronoun with a noun, in an attempt to cover-up the anonymity that still remains. I think of this as using nouns as proxy pronouns. It is something to avoid.

Remember:


Decisions are made by people, not the business.


Only if you are doing the publicity for Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, can you refer to the gang.


Using cliché references to where people are situated is just as bad.


Unless you’re at a convention for Cattle Rustling, nobody is back at the ranch.


And if you aren't representing The Really Useful Group, nothing is happening behind the scenes.

 

Finally...

  • Many companies have an unwritten policy about using 'we' for the company, not 'I' for the self. It's worth checking.

  • Overuse of 'we' will cast you in the role of enabler, not leader.

  • Aim for an equal split between third-person and first-person pronouns.

  • Use the proper noun - the one replaced later by the pronoun - at least twice.

  • Avoid proxy pronouns like 'the gang' or 'the business'.

  • Clichés like 'back at the ranch' or 'behind the scenes' show a lack of specificity.

 

On to Lesson 6: Dealing With Difficult Questions

 

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