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Is “We” Polite or Just Ambiguous?

The other day in a Better Business Writing course a manager admitted she uses we when she means you. She gave examples like these:

"We need to take on this project."

"We need to get this task done by Friday."

She uses we to come across as polite rather than pushy. But she really wants the person reading her message to take on the project and get the task done.

I was glad the manager asked my opinion. She gave me the chance to talk about the time a client informed me that "All we need now is to write the letter of agreement." I waited about a week, then phoned the client to let him know I had not received the agreement. He laughed and told me he thought I was writing it.

That's the problem with we. It doesn't clarify responsibilities. It's as bad as the passive "This tasks needs to get done by Friday." In fact, it's worse. When someone says, "This task needs to get done," the next question is often "Who will do it?" But in response to "We need to get this task done," people rarely ask "Who is we?"

I suggested the manager choose among sentences like these:

"Please take on this project."

"I would like you to take on this project."

"I am hoping you will be able to take on this project."

"This project falls within your responsibilities. Can you fit it in?"

"Please finish this task by Friday."

"Can you please finish this task by Friday?"

"This task needs to be done by Friday. Can you do it?"

"The project requires that you finish this task by Friday."

"The deadline for this project is Friday. Can you meet it?"

Here is my advice: Avoid using we when you mean you. Use you in requests and directives to be both polite and unambiguous. 

Have you experienced we/you confusion on the job? Please tell us your story.

Lynn
Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

13 comments on “Is “We” Polite or Just Ambiguous?”

  • Great point. Yes, I have experienced the ambiguity of “we” while working with clients; however, I make sure to clarify whose responsibility it is before going forward. I never want deadlines to pass that I was supposed to meet.

  • I’m so glad you wrote about this. I’ve experienced this confusion as well, but I hadn’t thought about it recenly.

    In my professional writing class last week, we were talking about indirect commands (for example, saying “The printer needs a new ink cartridge” rather than saying, “Plase put a new ink cartridge into the printer.”) and the misunderstandings that can ensue. I had not thought about the “we” misunderstanding; I’ll be sure to mention that one to my class today as an addendum to last week’s discussion.

  • How embarrassing. I usually proofread my comments but got distracted by a phone call and didn’t read over this one before submitting it. “Plase” excuse the errors I “recenly” made!

  • Hi, Nina. Thanks for your excellent example about the printer needing an ink cartridge. It’s one we can all learn from.

    I enjoyed your second comment. Don’t you hate it when errors come to light online? Well, it’s good to show your humanity now and then.

    Lynn

  • This was a very good point. I tend to use “we” instead of “I” to give credit to the entire team instead of just my portion of the idea. “We thought it would be a good idea to include…”

    What do you think about that?

  • Hi, Julia. Using “we” is an excellent idea when you want to give credit to the team.

    At the same time, you want to be sure not to use “we” to disguise something that is really your idea. Your example, “We thought it would be a good idea,” made me think of that potential problem. You don’t want people to be silently saying “We? It was all her idea!”

    As I said, using “we” to give credit is terrific.

    I wrote a blog post called “Redefining the ‘Royal We'” that discusses your point from a slightly different angle. If you are interested, copy that title into the search bar at top right, and you can read it.

    Thanks for asking.

    Lynn

  • Yes Lynn, ‘we’ is definitely potentially ambiguous. It should never be used for a ‘you’.

    However, ‘we’ does go a long way as a partnership building word(whose importance, I believe, is at par with the politeness part)

    Thanks for the excellent post Lynn.

  • Very true, i have experiences on it.
    But the problem arises when it comes to working with colleagues of same rank, using ‘we’ would bring about the misunderstanding,’you’ might just be dominating, asking if
    “This project falls within your responsibilities. Can you fit it in?”
    or
    “The deadline for this project is Friday. Can you meet it?”
    is dangerous, it is almost like giving a choice of “you can do it if you wish too..” and getting work has been tough on that front.

  • Hi, Uma. I have found that with peers it is a good idea to ask rather than tell. There is always the risk that the response will not be positive, as you noted.

    Which approaches have you found most successful?

    Lynn

  • Hi Lynn, thanks for the reply.

    I prefer telling straight (looking at my peer’s eye) that why I want him/her to do ‘this’ work, and how only they can do it well, to boost their confidence and am more than half way for them in telling yes!

    And depending on the person alter my statements…”you are needed, what do you say?”

    And tell how it would benefit them.

    Uma

Comments are closed.