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Pronouns can make or break you (or me)

By Gretchen Hirsch

Many successful business people discount the importance of language skills. They suggest there’s little need for correct spelling because we have spell-checkers, and that proper grammar isn't important in a world of text messages and e-mail. To them, all that matters is being able to get their point across, however clumsily. But the little daily failures that arise from ineffective use of language can end up costing you a ton of time and money—resources you can't afford to squander. And those failures also can make you sound incompetent to those who appreciate the subtleties of words. Language matters because the words, grammar, and sentences we speak create our reality. (In psycholinguistics, this idea is called linguistic determinism.)

Let’s examine three pronouns: I, you, and we. In themselves, they’re neutral in tone, but when, where, and how they’re used can have a significant effect on how you’re perceived. And others’ perceptions are critical to your business success.

In the context of a job interview, for example, the word “I” can be a landmine. Fourteen “I’s” in answer to an interview question can make you sound like a raging megalomaniac—and a credit-grabber to boot. Of course, you’ll need to refer to yourself when an interviewer is asking you to explain how you’ve gotten along in previous work environments, but being able to leaven the first person singular with some other pronouns leaves a better impression. Using “my team (or my boss) and I worked together to … ” or, “My division accomplished … ” spreads some credit around. You look generous rather than grabby.

However, when you’ve made a big, honking mistake and need to apologize for it, the word “I” can be invaluable. Several years ago, one of the people I supervised decided to take some initiative (without direction from me or notification to me), and unfortunately, he stepped in it big time. I didn’t know what he’d done until it was brought to my attention by the president of the company, to whom I was a direct report. “Bob will be up to see you in a few minutes to apologize in person,” I said to my boss, “but I need to own up to this, too. It happened on my watch, and I should have been supervising him more closely. We’re both sorry. This was embarrassing for you and it shouldn’t have happened.”

I accomplished two things with this tactic. First, I took personal responsibility, which was immediately disarming because it’s so rare in today’s business culture. Second, by quickly admitting my supervisory mistake, I forestalled what was sure to be the next question: “How could you have let this happen?” The air was already out of the balloon; the president’s annoyance rapidly abated. In fact, he grinned at me and said, “I guess you learned something.” I said I had. We parted amicably and I continued to enjoy his trust.

“You” is a tricky word, and there are times when you have to avoid it to maintain a relationship with co-workers. That’s because the context in which we use “you” is often the time we’re pointing out someone else’s failings. “You screwed up,” or “How many times do I have to tell you?” And what’s the best substitute for “you” in this situation? Well, here’s a surprise. It’s “I.” “I’m disappointed in how this turned out,” or “I get disheartened when I’ve given instructions and they’re ignored.” The point gets across and no one feels demeaned. You’ve stated your feelings without blaming anyone else for causing them.

Of course, “you” works beautifully in positive contexts. You can’t do too much better than “I love you,” “You look fabulous,” or “You did an amazing job.”

The best pronoun in almost any situation is “we.” No matter what the context, it calls up visions of solidarity, cooperation, and common purpose. It’s almost magic, and we should all use it more often.

Our Reality
The world of pronouns is not another planet. It is our world; it’s our reality. Like any tool, language changes reality depending on how we use it. Misuse a tool, and you risk unintended outcomes and consequences. Ignorance of language can make—or break— your career. So, choose your fate—and your words—carefully.

Please tell us what you think of this article.

Gretchen Hirsch is a writer, editor, and educator. Her latest book, Talking Your Way to the Top, is a favorite among Ask The Headhunter readers, and she's the expert I turn to when I need to have my English adjusted. Gretchen's blog write better is a fun place to start learning how to communicate gracefully and with zing. Gretchen is also a professional book doctor and assists other writers with their own book projects. Gretchen may be reached at info@midwestbookdocs.com.


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