Inclusive Language: I, We, and You

One of the questions that emerged from the discussion on Obama’s inaugural address was his use of inclusive language, in particular his use of “we” rather than “you”.

I was left with a slight niggling thought that I haven’t had time to develop until now: that you can’t rely on “we” to achieve an inclusive effect, and indeed that there might be times when using it will be counter productive.

Writing about community seemed a good point to explore this further, and I’ve been scouring the net and my library of books for further advice on this… to no particular avail.  I have the feeling that I have read articles on this before but I’ve been unable to track down the references.  If you have or know of any, please do let me know.

So for now these are my not yet completely formed reflections on the uses of “I”, “we” and “you” in your writing.

Using “I”

  • Makes your writing more personal
  • Forces you to show up, be present in your writing, and declare your hand
  • Establishes you as the authority behind your words
  • Maintains some separation: setting you up as the person who is telling the story, or teaching the lesson (which can have advantages in terms of your ability to teach, convey messages and so on)
  • Creates the possibility for establishing a relationship with the reader
  • Helps to establish rapport

BUT

  • Gets boring when over done
  • Leads readers to switch off if the focus is too personal, too specific to one person’s perspective

Using “We”

  • Creates a bond or sense of connection between us
  • Emphasises what’s similar, what connects us together
  • Helps the reader to identify with our shared, collective effort
  • Makes an appeal to our shared human experience
  • Done well, can be inspiring and motivating
  • Reduces the distance between the reader and the writer
  • Places the writer firmly as ‘one of us’

BUT

  • Can be patronising when there is no genuine partnership

To illustrate this, think of a time when a boss or teacher has asked you to do something preposterous, and started the request with “we’re going to…”

  • Can lead to resistance if the reader doesn’t identify with the shared project (‘I’m not going along with that’)
  • Can lead readers to switch off (‘they’re not talking to me, that “we” is someone else’)
  • Can ring untrue if you are in fact only one person.

You might be tempted to write about “we” if your organisation is only one person and you want it to seem bigger.  Tread carefully here.  Readers have a 6th sense for spotting when this isn’t so.  Referring to “we” when there’s only you around can make your writing sound artificial and unconvincing

“We” needs to be used with care.  Be sure that you are referring to an issue, an idea, an approach, a belief, an experience that is either universal or something that is shared between you and your readers.

Using “You”

  • May create a sense of distance when you are supposed to be working on a shared, collective effort

(Like: human beings saving the world, a team collaborating at work, a president working with their people.  Readers might wonder: ‘why are you keeping yourself outside of this effort?’)

  • Has less of a sense of togetherness and shared effort than ‘we’

BUT

  • Avoids risk of patronising your readers
  • Creates room for a relationship between the writer, and the reader
  • Allows you to talk both to a group, and direct to one person.

(Thanks to the vagaries of the English language for this.)

  • Means  you can talk in a very direct, personal way to individuals who are reading your work

Flickr Turns 2 (19) by Thomas Hawk on flickr

And sometimes those little darts get straight through.

Do you notice different reactions when you make more use of “I”, “we” or “you” when you’re writing?  Are you aware of different reactions to the different language patterns when you’re reading?

I’m genuinely curious and keen to learn more about this one, so please do share what you know or  have noticed.

Photo Credit: Flickr Turns 2 (19) by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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30 Comments

  1. Robert Hruzek · · Reply

    A thoughtful approach to these little words packed with such meaning - and power!

    One thing I might add about the power of “we”, though. It has the power to mislead as well. Especially when the hearers aren’t listening with discerning ears, or maybe they simply want to believe - even if there’s no evidence to back it up. Politicians have known that one for years - and folks still fall for it every time.

  2. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Hi Joanna, Picking up on one of your points, the use of “we” in certain business conversations is a pet peeve of mine. When a boss says, “We need to do something,” quite often it means, “You need to do something.” That’s annoying. Then, in group meetings/emails, when someone says “We need to do something,” everyone waits for someone else to do it and nothing gets done. As a subordinate, I want to know what needs to be done and who needs to do it. As a boss, I have a responsibility to communicate those things clearly. It’s amazing how a two letter word can confuse those all important points!
    (End of comment rant.) :)

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..You Are Now Entering the Customer Service Twilight Zone

  3. Terry Heath · · Reply

    Interesting and insightful word study.

    If [I/we/you] eavesdrop of a typical telephone conversation it seems the bulk of sentences contain the word “I”. Same thing in blog comments!

    In general though, we would rather read things that are about us and start spacing out when it’s too “I”-centric; for many, it’s all about me.

    No. Not me. I meant you. I mean . . . oh now I’m saying I too much. Oh, to heck with it.

    Terry Heaths last blog post..Win-Win Thinking For Multi-Talented Fairies and Mortals

  4. Ulla Hennig · · Reply

    Joanna,
    I hate it when a doctor says to me “well, how are we feeling today?” and would like to react with “I don’t know how you feel but I am feeling quite awful”. It’s a typical example of the patronizing use of “we”. I think we should be very careful with using “we” because it presupposes a unity of feeling / knowing / thinking which often can’t be taken for granted.

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Friedrichshagen - A Place full of History

  5. raziya dhillon · · Reply

    Hi johanna,

    i do agree with this I,We,you making me realise why thing go in wrong direction while debating.We(as m using it her to give an expression of my friend group when I alone do the talking)do misjudge people when they use it.thanks for the tips.

  6. Barb Hartsook @ Over Coffee · · Reply

    Boy you covered that topic well, Joanna! I kept thinking as I read, context is all important here!

    We is one of those words that implies intimacy to some degree, and if it’s misused, I squiggle and want to get away. Who is someone to presume intimate knowledge of what I think, how I feel, to assume what’s good for me, and to proceed accordingly, as if it were my wish as well as his/hers? I find that a bit arrogant.

    There are other times, though, that I want to be an integral part of we. As when I jumped out of an airplane, tethered to the guy with the parachute. Very happy to let him make the decisions and include me.

    You as an imperative can be harsh, and I can be self-serving — but again, context matters.

    You asked if we’re aware of different reactions to different language patterns, and yes, I am. After I write something, I at least walk away — often leave it ’til it gets good and cold.

    That’s when I see (and feel the effects of) the pronoun patterns…

    Great post!

  7. Robert I’m sure politicians all know the tricks to try… do you think ‘we’ is more likely to mislead and deceive than you, though? Maybe it does create the impression of ‘being in it together’ which doesn’t tend to stick in practice

    Brad oh dear, I have been to those meetings too! I agree with you - it’s much better if a boss can be honest about what needs to be done, especially if they’re relying on other people to do the doing ;-)

    Actually that was the conclusion I reached when I was out and about today - it all comes down to honesty and good intent. If you’re being honest you won’t go far wrong whichever of the words you choose.

    Terry you tied my mind in knots there wondering if readers were being selfish because the writer was going on too much about themselves… ;-) I guess the answer is that you need a balance. I don’t like reading things when the author is absent, and avoids the “I”, but too much of it and I’m yawning, and off

    Ulla yes, that is such a good example of how ‘we’ can be misused. And you put this so well - “we” because it presupposes a unity of feeling / knowing / thinking which often can’t be taken for granted.

    I was wondering about how this would work in German - if you are blogging do you need to address your readers as “sie” or can you write to “du” - even if there are many readers?

  8. raziya I’m glad you found it useful. I think we can go in the wrong direction when the word we’re using doesn’t match the reality. I hope you find the tips useful

    Barb thanks for that thoughtful feedback. Your point about presumption is well made - it works very powerfully when we all feel the intimacy, but makes us feel akward and uncomfortable when we don’t. And yes about context - is that similar to honesty do you think - that the words ‘work’ if they are being truthful to the context in which we find ourselves?

  9. Susan Mazza · · Reply

    Amazing how much power three of the smallest words in the English language have. I find myself doing a good bit of pronoun editing when working on a post. Too many I’s makes can be tedious and even off putting for the reader and the listener. On the other hand when leaders use too many “I”s in their speaking they can easily dis-empower their team.

    An obeservation…”We” when associated with ideas and achievements is an act of inclusion. Yet “We screwed up” is often perceived as considered a lack of accountability. Something I am left pondering.

    Now that you point it out I can see how loaded the use of the word “we” can be. I will be more mindful in my use of it from now on. “We” is used far too much as a way to hide in the crowd I think. The use of “we” instead of what “I” will do and what “you” will do is a great way to impede progress when it comes to a team. “We” can’t be accountable or make a promise - only you or I can. “We” can however work together.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post Joanna!

    Susan Mazzas last blog post..How Well Do You Listen?

  10. Susan Mazza · · Reply

    I just noticed I made quite a few errors in my comment. Sorry for making it hard to read. Sometimes I hit that submit button a bit too soon.

    Susan Mazzas last blog post..How Well Do You Listen?

  11. Wonderful article, Joanna. I’ve been using more “I” in my writing as well, especially when it’s something personal as a way to reclaim ownership for the words I use. It’s been great; I’ve gotten more responses from readers and friends when I use such language.

    Naokos last blog post..Just a reminder

  12. Gennaro · · Reply

    It comes down to the context of the discussion or piece of writing. Mixing it up works fairly well unless it’s a blog or meeting set up specifically with an agenda in mind. A well established personality may be better served with using I. The audience already respects that person and will take the message in that manner.

    I actually try to avoid using ‘I’ or ‘we’ when writing. Prefer to use names then she or he. When relaying my own narrative, it’s still important to try to avoid it because the word becomes redundant.

    Gennaros last blog post..Unique Ways To Pick Your Next Destination

  13. Miguel Wickert · · Reply

    Joanna,

    I recall when someone informed me to use we when speaking because if you was overused, it creates distance between you and your audience. Context is key. It depends on the makeup of ones audience. If you’re comfortable with your crowd- we may be necessary. :)

    -Mig

    Miguel Wickerts last blog post..Links of Interest

  14. Janice Cartier · · Reply

    What if these words are used like filmmakers use camera shots and we use them in mixtures so the body of work can move back and forth between an I , a you and a we? Flow like a conversation, move from panorama to intimate close up? And transition between them too.

    I know that it’s not practical to change narrative povs, but when we are writing what’s to keep you from being part of the story?

    Sheesh, I hope that made sense.

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..And In This Corner

  15. Susan thanks for such detailed feedback. I can see what you mean about ideas and achievement - the positive forward looking stuff, although even then I think it only really works when the speaker/writer and audience are genuinely ‘in it together’. Works very powerfully if they are.

    I think a bit like Janice’s point, you can dance between them in a very effective way. I can see that even in your last sentences. ‘I make this promise. I’m asking you to do your bit. We can do this together’. The energy shifts around between them somehow…?

    Sorry I don’t have the edit comment switched on at the moment - I’ll give it another try. Sometimes it interferes with other plugins. No need to apologise for any errors :-)

  16. Naoko yes, it is just that, a reclamation of ownership of the words, and when you do it in a way which is respectful of your readers (ie not just going on about yourself) it always generates a powerful sense of connection. I’m glad you’re experiencing that in your writing.

    Gennaro interesting point about personality - I’m trying to think about the way Seth Godin writes - I think it’s mainly I / you. I like his blogging style a lot, and he isn’t ashamed to teach / broadcast from that subjective viewpoint, because he knows his stuff is interesting and relevant. And we don’t mind either.

    Do you find that you get a different reaction when you do refer more to “I” on your blog? In my experience it does tend to generate a more personal / animated response from readers - though that might not always be what you’re looking for of course!

    Mig I think it probably does boil down to context, and the relationship between speaker / writer and audience. “We” without relationship is going to create more distance than “you” probably applied… but like you say, if there is a point of connection, that’s the one to appeal to in order to create the ‘we’ relationship.

    My goodness, it is proving tricky to write these comments without tying ourselves into pronoun knots isn’t it?!

    Janice yes, it did make sense, and I think you’re right that the best way to do it is to move between the points of view - so long as you’re aware which is which, and not presupposing a relationship that doesn’t exist, or holding back from the direct appeal or personal point of view if that could really clinch it.

  17. Janice Cartier · · Reply

    Responding to this is as tricky as a tongue twister….maybe we should throw in a few me, me, me’s…no that would be singing….anyway. I think the point is well worth thinking about, and maybe experiment with as well. Seth is very effective. And directional. Because he in a way is broadcasting, sowing his seeds to cover a huge lot of ground. Strange then that he narrows his focus to I and you. Hm, how to be intimate and personal in public…? On a masssive scale? Very excellent questions you’ve raised.

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..And In This Corner

  18. Gennaro · · Reply

    @Joanna

    Just a personal preference when writing. When reading blog posts, I don’t mind seeing or reading it. It’s a matter of comfort for me. It works for a lot of people especially those who have an established personality. It’s a pretty smart move if you’re using a blog to brand yourself too.

    Gennaros last blog post..End To Cuba Travel Restrictions?

  19. Tumblemoose · · Reply

    Hi Joanna,

    You know, I’ve never given it much thought, really. I tend to write what the voice in my head tells me (well, most of it anyway. My parole officer says to ignore the other ones)

    I like what you are offering here. I’m going to take the time to review my older posts and see what I was doing.

    George

    Tumblemooses last blog post..Writer’s newsletter: A little help, please

  20. Janice it is tricky isn’t it? Your comment about Seth reminds me of something I want to do - sit down and analyse just what he does in his posts, and how he manages to achieve the effect you describe. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time - should really sit down and do it.

    Gennaro makes sense - thanks for following up my question.

    George I write what the voice tells me too :-) But this is one that I’ve been aware of when I read… which probably means that it’s worth looking at our own stuff too to see how we’re using it, and also maybe if it’s worth experimenting with a different style. If I can face it I might look back through some of my old archive too…

  21. wilson · · Reply

    What a detailed and straightforward description about “I, You and We” here, Joanna. To be honest, I’m the sort of person that love to mix all these three words in every article! I was wondering, maybe it makes my articles becoming even more boring than you did, Joanna?

    wilsons last blog post..You Should Stop to Breastfeed Your Baby On the Right Time!

  22. Hi, Joanna. This is a great post. I often find myself using “we” when I’m writing to people who I feel I have something (or want to have something) in common with (e.g. “If we write from our hearts, we’ll always write powerfully.”). I save “you” for times when I want to be a bit more authoritarian or am trying to teach or instruct (“Pay close attention to your surroundings and you’ll find plenty of inspiration for your writing.”). When I’m telling a story about myself, or want others to understand my own vulnerability, I use “I” (e.g. “There are days when the last thing I want to do is pull out my laptop and start writing.”).

    Of course, there are exceptions to all of these examples, but I think in general this is how I use “I”, “you” and “we” in my writing.

    Amis last blog post..7 Places to Find New Story Ideas

  23. Hi Ami, those are three great examples, thank you. I recognise a lot of what I (try to) do in your approach - it’s useful to see it articulated in this way

    Best wishes

  24. Karen Chaffee · · Reply

    I loved Muguel’s comment: it incorporated we, I, and you.

    I think blogging is like that. All three terms have their place depending on the subject material. I doubt that just one would be appropriate to use all of the time. There is a fine balance between being inclusive as opposed to patronizing.

  25. Karen I’d agree with you, that all three have a role in blogging. I think blogging at its best is a bit like a dance - you want the blogger to take a strong lead (with I being fully present) but also that they listen, watch, notice, and engage with their readers (you)… so there are times when the dance becomes we

  26. We, You, And I » client k · · Reply

    [...] more insight, see this post at Confident [...]

  27. Hi Joanna,
    1. Thanks for your nice analysis. The last post is quite old, so
    I wonder if anybody will read this… Hopefully yes :)

    2. I might have missed something, but I would have expected
    a distinction between the 2 different meanings of ‘we’:
    - the inclusive one, when I am talking for all of us (reader and myself
    included) - this is the case that you have analyzed
    - there is a second situation, when I representing us am using ‘we’
    to talk to you (the readers). So my ‘we’ does not include the reader.

    3. I am writing a tech book, which seems to be quite a challenge
    for non native English speaker as me. Actually I was trying to find
    an answer to the following question:
    “What is the most polite (or appropriate) way of referring to
    ourselves ( I or we ) when writing non fiction but also not exactly
    academic text ?” (Taking for granted that it should be avoided
    whenever possible).
    To explain better: Many years ago I was working in a sales company
    (as tech guy) where we were often and explicitly instructed by our
    boss to avoid using ‘I’, especially when talking with clients.
    The idea behind was that “we are a team” and it is more polite to say
    “we managed this or we achieved that” instead of somehow selfish
    “I did”. I got used to this sort of “more modest”, but now I am
    in strong doubt, in context of writing a book.
    Consider this:
    “I recommend … ” or “We recommend (to you - reader) … ”
    I am tempted to mix the two (i. e. to used them both), which
    in turn may be the worst choice…
    CAN YOU HELP PLEASE ? Thanks in advance :)

  28. Paulo hello, and thanks for your question. Yes, I read it :-)

    You’re right, I didn’t spend much time on what happens when you’re writing on behalf of a group of people, so the “we” refers to that group and “you” refers to the reader(s). I would think that would make it a little simpler, because you are genuinely reflecting those different people, and being clear about what’s different between you and and your readership.

    I’m afraid I can’t easily answer your last question without knowing a bit more of the context. If it’s you writing as an individual I’d probably say go mainly for “I”. You can easily mix them up but the trick is to be clear about which you’re using and why. Also to be aware of the different impact you create.

    I hope that helps

  29. Indian Book Publisher · · Reply

    Thats quite an enlightening article. In public life, the inclusive language pays rich dividends, as evident from the success of several great leaders. When you allow people to take part of any great endeavor, they are more than ready to face its consequences. Without that inclusion, there is nobody to share the success or failure. In private life, I think, that depends on the situation.

  30. Hi, yes you’re right, it does depend on the context - I think perhaps in public life too. There are times for a call to the common endeavour, and other times when a leader needs to talk about their own personal quest, and making it clear where personal accountability lies. Too much ‘we’ and we can become suspicious of what they’re up to…

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