6 min read

On pronouns: writing with "we" and "you"

Here’s why you should care about pronouns.

Here’s why we should care about pronouns.

Which sentence made you want to read this essay more?

“There is no I in team.” I learned this adage early. At my first job, I asked my boss what made our Managing Director, let’s call her Jane, good at her job. He said he has never heard Jane use the word “you”. She would say “we are winning in this area” or “can we do better here”, no matter if she’s speaking to her assistant or in front of a large team. She operates with the principle of company before team before me.

Individuals using first-person plural and second-person (such as “we,” “us,” or “you”) ought to demonstrate an outward focus, considering the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others.

David Burkus on Pronoun Use Reflects Standings in Social Hierarchies

Indeed, research shows leaders choose pronouns that focuses on their tribe and its members instead of on themselves. Linguist Steven Pinker calls pronouns the “interpersonal dimension” of language: how we think about social relationships and convey power relations, intimacy, and group membership. But the research still leaves me wondering: when do I use “we” vs. “you”?

This question seems simple, but its answer doesn’t come intuitively to me. When my wife saw me writing this essay, she is surprised I have to think about which pronoun to use like I’m dissecting a math formula. She said it’s because my primary mode is thinking mode, whereas hers is feeling mode, based on the Myers–Briggs personality model.

In figuring out what pronoun to use, Jane’s style stuck with me. Surely I can just copy her and use “we” everywhere. “You” sounds pointed to me. I don’t want to confront. I tried Jane’s approach, then feedback rolled in: people told me I’m not clear, I talk in generalities without clear next steps of who does what, and I should developer a stronger sense of urgency.

I decided to dig deeper into the nuances of using “we” vs. “you” in nonfiction writing, and how great authors and orators use them effectively. Finding advice on this is harder than I thought: searching for “when to use we vs. you” revealed tips on how to use pronouns generally, how pronouns affect marketing messaging, and how to remove personal pronouns altogether. Once in a while I’d come across a gem. Here are the notes I collected over the years.

General tips

When to use “you”

Cons of using “you”

When to use “we”

Cons of using “we”

Comparisons of “we” and “you” in context

Simple usage in short sentences

We You
We need to optimize our supply chain to reduce costs.
(collaborative, company-wide effort)
You need to optimize your supply chain to reduce costs.
We should reconsider our options.
(more collaborative)
You should reconsider your options.
You should adopt the new workflow to improve efficiency.
(delegate to a specific person/function)
We should adopt the new workflow to improve efficiency.
How should we get started?
(encourages teamwork)
How should you get started?
You are capable of great things.
(inspires individually)
We are capable of great things.
You cannot give up hope.
(personal accountability)
We cannot give up hope.
This affects all of us.
(broader impact)
This affects you.
What do you recommend?
(solicits specific opinion)
What do we recommend?
You hit the goals this quarter!
(personalized recognition)
We hit the goals this quarter!

Advanced, mixed usage in longer prose

Example 1

  Worse Better
Prose You need to adopt sustainable practices in your company. You owe it to the community and environment to do business responsibly. You cannot continue old harmful ways - you must transform your operations. To build a sustainable company that serves our community, we must evolve our practices. As employees, we all owe it to the environment to operate responsibly. While change is never easy, complacency is not an option. I’m asking each of you to help drive our company’s transformation towards sustainable operations.
Critique This relies too much on “you” in an imposing, accusing way. Repeatedly using you sounds repetitive. It places all the burden and blame on the reader. Try balancing the call to action with shared accountability by using a mix of pronouns. alternating between “you” and “we” allows the message to come across as both an individual expectation and a team effort. The revised paragraph incorporates an inclusive “we” perspective while still using directed “you” language strategically to set expectations and accountability. This balance helps drive the message home while unifying the audience.

Example 2

  Worse Better
Prose You need to make the product easier to use. We have been getting a lot of complaints from customers about the complicated interface. You designers just don’t seem to understand that simple is better. We need you to create wireframes that anyone can understand. Our products should be so intuitive that even my grandmother can use them without instructions! You better make this happen quickly or else we will need to find someone else who is up for the challenge. As a product team, we need to address the user complaints about our complex interface. While the designers have developed functionality-rich experiences, simplifying the user journey must be our shared priority now.

I suggest we revisit the information architecture across the entire product ecosystem - let’s work together to identify areas that need streamlining. Designers, you have the expertise to lead the creation of revised wireframes focused on core user tasks. Engineers, you know the codebase best to guide technical constraints. The PMs can coordinate user testing on the simplified flows.

By having each role contribute their strengths, I’m confident we can quickly improve the usability. Our team collaboration will enable us to build an intuitive product that delights users. Let’s leverage our collective skills to make this product easy for anyone to use.
Critique This relies too heavily on an accusatory “you” directed at designers, and the few “we” statements are not inclusive but rather critical. In this version, “we” establishes a collaborative mindset while specific “you” statements direct area experts to contribute in their wheelhouse. The tone remains inclusive and constructive while setting clear expectations. The mix of pronouns speaks to the team as a cohesive unit while assigning complementary responsibilities. This balanced approach may motivate and unify the team effectively.

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