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.