Business Emails: When Using "You" Can Be Impolite

One day, when I was working in advertising in New York, I learned an important lesson about the subtlety of language usage in business communication.

I was involved in a negotiation between my employer and another company. We were trying to come to an agreement about how to set up an online advertising campaign.

My counterpart at the other company was not cooperating with me. I was getting angry.

Around this time, I sent an email to my counterpart that included a sentence like this:

"We don't have the inventory available to do what you want."

After my boss saw that email, she called me into her office. She was angry.

"We need to talk about how to keep a professional tone when writing an email," she said.

I thought back over my email. I hadn't insulted anyone. I hadn't used any slang. What had I done wrong?

"It's your pronouns," she said. "You called the client you. You called our company we."

I was flabbergasted. English doesn't have many pronouns, and the pronouns it does have are not divided into formal and informal versions.

"But if I don't use you and we," I asked, "which pronouns should I use?"

She looked at me like I was a complete idiot.

"None," she said. "The pronouns are the problem."

"But if I don't use the pronouns, what should I use instead?"

She sighed. Did I really not get it?

"You use the names of the companies," she answered.

To understand my boss' point of view, let's back up and consider all the different entities in this situation that could possibly be referenced with a pronoun like I, we, or you:

my counterpart at the other company
my boss
my counterpart's boss
everyone else at my company, all the way up the management chain to the CEO
everyone else at the other company
any specific group of people at my company who might be CC'd on the email
any specific group of people at the other company who might be CC'd on the email

Now let's take another look at the sentence I wrote:

We don't have the resources available to do what you want.

What exactly is meant by we? What exactly is meant by you?

Maybe the sentence means this:

I (Michael) don't have the resources to do what you (Joe) want.

But that's unlikely, because if I meant the singular "I," then why did I use the plural "we"? I'm not a king. So maybe the meaning is:

We (my boss and I, plus anyone else at our company who is CC'd) don't have the resources to do what you (the recipient of the email, his boss, and whoever is CC'd on his end) want.

Theoretically possible, but unlikely. The clearest, best expansion of the original sentence is:

We (my company) don't have the resources to do what you (the other company) want(s).

So at the end of the day, the pronouns are standing in for companies, not people.

To bring the situation into focus, let's give the companies names. Let's say that my employer was "Green Street Publications," and that the client was "Euro-Fashion."

Now, compare these two sentences:

A: We don't have the resources available to do what you want.

B: Green Street Publications doesn't have the resources available to meet Euro-Fashion's needs.

There's no doubt about it. A hot-tempered middle manager working for Euro-Fashion, if forced to choose, would definitely rather see sentence B.

Sentence A reads like a refusal, a rejection. It sounds defensive, even a little rude.
Sentence B reads like a simple statement of fact. It might be a lie, but at least it's not an insult.

Personal pronouns are, well... personal. Their use tends to personify situations that sometimes are better kept impersonal. And even though English doesn't have an informal "you," the use of the "you" itself can be read as implicitly informal in many cases. After all, there is always some other choice, ranging from "Lizzy" to "your majesty" to "the woman in the hat." When we say "you," we invite the reader to imagine what exactly the pronoun is replacing. And when we say "we," we are suggesting to our audience that we are speaking on behalf of a group of humans, of which we are a part. When we do that, we are inviting them to guess who makes up that group, and why, and what that group's priorities are.

You might have noticed that I also changed the second verb in the sentence, from to do what you want, to to meet Euro-Fashion's needs.

But I had to make that change. Because as soon as "you" became "Euro-Fashion," the word "want" didn't make as much sense anymore. Companies don't want things. People do.

My boss wasn't a grammarian, an intellectual, or even a particularly avid reader. But she knew a great deal about communication. Since that day, I have applied her lesson thousands of times, thus avoiding an unquantifiable amount of strife.

Other Verbling articles by this teacher:

Writing In Another Language: The Ultimate Challenge

Reading Difficult Texts Aloud: Fluency For Advanced Students

"Stand" vs. "Stand Up": What's The Difference?

Are you good, or are you well? What's the difference?

November 29, 2018