top of page

Listen for pronouns

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Check out Hilary’s video blog!


“Let’s do this”. We all know that phrase from the last election campaign. When Fonterra placed an ad to explain who they were, how they developed, they started it with these words. “Let’s go right go back to the start”.

“Let’s” is a really powerful word, because it’s inclusive— let us. And it’s also a pronoun.

James Pennebaker has spent his whole life studying pronouns and he’s come up with some fascinating stuff. He talks about the word “we” and he says that there’s five ways that we use “we”. And I think he’s right and the first one is pretty obvious. “Oh look, shall we go for a cup of tea?”; “look, shall we work together on this?” It’s inclusive.

The second one, of course, is quite the opposite. “Look, shall we work on this? But, not them over there…” So you’re using “we” to exclude people.

The third “we” is actually when you’re giving an instruction. “Um, what we’ll be doing is creating a new database”. Actually, I think what you will be doing is creating a new database. But nevertheless putting it in “we” gives it more authority.

The fourth “we” is, of course, the royal “we”. “We are now a grandmother.”

And the fifth one is one that, again, you’ll be familiar with because the politicians love it. “What we need to do is build a strong health sector”. “What we need to do is create jobs”. Who exactly is this “we”? It’s left beautifully vague.

What I’m going to ask you to think about is how you use the word “we”, or whether you choose to say “I”. Because the evidence is—from Pennebaker—is that people of higher status, and leaders, actually use “we” more than “I”. Now that may seem counterintuitive. But here’s two things to think about. When you’re speaking to people are you going to use “we” or “I”? And when you’re listening to people, just listen out for whether they use “we” or “I”, and just think about the effect on you. So I invite you to think about pronouns. Yeah, yes, let’s do that.


bottom of page