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When ‘you’ isn’t the answer

17th May, 2023

When ‘you’ isn’t the answer

I’m not always right.

 

You probably find that hard to believe. (I know my husband does.)

 

But new research has made me rethink.

 

I always used to recommend using the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ in email writing.

 

It speaks directly to the reader, feels more relevant to them and so is more engaging.  For example:

 

‘You’re going to love this idea about….’

 

instead of

 

‘I have an exciting idea about….’

 

Or

 

‘5 tips to help your email overwhelm’

 

instead of

 

‘5 email overwhelm tips’

 

But using ‘you’ can sometimes have unintentional negative consequences.

 

Wharton professor Jonah Berger explains all in his brilliant new book, Magic Words.

 

He says while using ‘you’ can be great to engage people, his research also shows it can sometimes apportion blame. 

 

He compares

 

‘I wanted to talk, but you were busy’, which might feel accusatory,

 

with

 

I wanted to talk, but now didn’t seem like the best time’, which feels more neutral.

 

Another example could be:

 

‘Did you get the paperwork signed off?’ (finger-pointing)

 

versus

 

‘Did the paperwork get signed off?’ (no-one’s fault).

 

Berger explains:

 

By focusing on the action rather than the actor, it removes any suggestion of reproach. I’m not suggesting that it’s your job, I just want to find out whether it happened so I can do it if it hasn’t.’

 

So, before we use ‘you’, let’s stop and think.  

 

Is this a positive message where we want to engage people?  Go for it!

 

Or could this be seen as shame and blame? Proceed with caution…

 

Email Empathy is all about not just the overall message we send, but also the individual words we choose.  

accenture
UBS
Ricoh
Euromoney
University of Cambridge

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