The pronoun shift

Is that a new size?” I asked. “They don’t advertise them,” he said, referring to the oddly small cups. “They’re secret. ’Short’.” The “they” was a dead giveaway. This barista was not on the side of Starbucks.

There is this shift that happens when you work with a client, start a new job, even when you’re in a relationship. It’s both significant and invisible. It’s the moment when you move from considering yourself an individual to considering yourself a unit, the singular to the plural. And once that shift happens, you unconsciously shift your pronoun use. “I” gives way to “we.”

In client meetings, where you once said, “You might consider changing your direction to reflect X and Y,” you find yourself saying, “We might consider doing that after launch.” “We wouldn’t want our audience to think A or B.” We? Suddenly you are they. I is we. And you have stepped into your audience’s shoes and minds.

Researchers who analyzed conversations of 154 middle-aged and older married couples about points of disagreement found:

[T]hose who used pronouns such as “we,” “our,” and “us” behaved more positively toward one another and showed less physiological stress. …. Couples who emphasized their “separateness” by using pronouns such as “I,” “me,” and “you” were less satisfied in their marriages. …. “The use of ‘we’ language is a natural outgrowth of a sense of partnership, of being on the same team, and confidence in being able to face problems together.

We’s the ultimate form of empathy or commitment, depending on your perspective. Barista or not, we can sometimes benefit from more we and less I, to the benefit of everyone we design for and with.

(Also: be on the lookout for the short cup.)