pronouns Jessica Baumgartner

Voicing Messages

A basic rhetorical principle is that pronouns like “you,” “they” and “them” will open up distance between a source and its intended receivers. 

One of the more subtle effects of messages we send to others is how we “voice” them.  Among other things, voicing involves the use of pronouns and and other words that affect how a receiver understands the source.  A very formal message will probably make assertions or requests with reference to only the receivers of the message.  For example, a memo that from the boss that says “All of you will need to budget more time this week to complete this audit” makes it clear that (1) the manager is seemingly excluding himself from most of the work and that (2) he thinks of himself as distinct from the rest of the group.  The message is voiced as a directive.  If the request was changed to say “All of us will need to budget more time for this work,” the social distance between the staff and the manager would be lessened.

This basic lesson of voicing is obvious but important. The pronouns ” “you,” “they,” and “them” tend to keep distance between the source and the receivers. The use of “us” and “we” do the reverse.  They close the distance with others, suggesting a more inclusive group.  With the example above it’s obvious that a better style of management is exemplified in the second example. Top-down leadership using terms of exclusivity is more likely to feed all kinds of organizational resentments.

The constant use of “I” can also become a particular irritant because it signals a person who appears to be stuck in a self-referential box. Suspect someone of being a narcissist?  Count the “I”s in a segment of their everyday speech.


It’s not unusual for advocates to go off the rails, missing their audience’s sensitivities to whether they seem to think of themselves as part of the same community.


A famous case of a message unraveling because it was given in the wrong voice happened when independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot was invited to address the NAACP in 1992.  The group’s annual meeting is one of the nation’s important venues for a candidate.  And Perot thought he had a winning message.  His speech sought to build solidarity by referencing his own poverty as a youth growing up in Texas, but Perot kept using the wrong pronoun.  He kept talking about “you folks:” “Now I don’t have to tell you who gets hurt first” in hard times, he began.  “”You people do; your people do.”  Amid a string of “I”s he kept digging himself into a deeper hole of alienation.   Finally someone in the back of the all shouted “Correct it!,” literally asking Perot to place himself inside the same social space with his fellow human beings.  But he remained clueless to the end.  Headlines the next day noted that the candidate “Laid an Egg.” Nothing of substance he said made any difference after his audience registered the simple but consequential mistake of misplaced pronouns.  It was not the language itself that was the problem.  Rather, it was that it signaled an embedded bias that told his audience that he saw them as a different tribe.