The "We" Illusion
Written on my website booking page is, “Contact me and I will get back to you as soon as possible." I want people know that they are contacting me personally. When I am a customer I feel better when the experience is personal, so I treat people the same way. When I go to a restaurant, I’m always let down when I’ve had a great experience with the server and then someone else comes over and asks if I want dessert. My first thought is “why are you here?” and I feel let down by the server. I like to know who I am going to be dealing with and who is responsible for whatever it is that I am paying for.
When I go to the website of an individual and read, “Contact us and we will get back to you”, I always wonder who the “us” and “we” are. It is a sentence filled with mystery. It lacks the immediate clarity of “Contact me and I will get back to you.” You know it is me, Jack, that will get back to you. As a rule of thumb, the use of “I” brings clarity and the use of “we” brings mystery. “I” answers a question, “we” raises questions. Such as, "You got a mouse in your pocket?" The question of who the “we” is, is sometimes answered when I send a text to the contact number and it is clearly an iPhone. Now I know that I have encountered The Phantom “We”, the secret of The “We” Illusion. Depending on the magnitude of the business I was contemplating, I will wonder where else I may be misled down the road by their words. They either don’t know how to use the language properly or they are deliberately misusing the language to aggrandize themselves and/or insulate themselves from accountability in the event of a future conflict, where it will be convenient to have someone to blame. In their unsuccessful attempt to gain stature through the use of “we” and “us”, their credibility now has a red flag stuck to it. Picture them holding a big shield with “WE” engraved on the front of it, shielding them from taking any responsibly should there be an issue.
I am not alone in my disdain for the misuse of “we”. In 2010, linguist Ben Zimmer wrote an article, with a different emphasis, yet still relevant, in The New York Times titled, “We” that includes a story in which Adm. Hyman G. Rickover said of “we” that only three types of individual are entitled to such usage: “The head of a sovereign state, a schizophrenic and a pregnant woman”. I’ve included a link to that excellent article at the end of this page.
AGGRANDIZING THE SELF
In a society focused on making things appear larger than they are, it is no surprise that so many people use “us” and “we” when “I” is the correct way to write or say it. It is a means of aggrandizing the self, a way to portray higher status, and a way of inflating the appearance of their one man operation to that of a “business". This is the kind of person who loves to tell you about all of the “people they have under them” and how many people “work for them” which sounds a lot like an elementary school kid bragging about the toys Santa brought him for Christmas. I often think that many adults are just kids with weathered faces. When someone tells me about the people they have under them, I tell them that they have a lot of catching up to do… and that Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have had 20,000 people under him. I think it is safe to say that most of us know what he was doing to them. It’s a beautiful thing when they say, “there’s no way he could have had that many”, missing the thrust of the joke and at the same time making my point about them. Whether they’re telling the truth about having people under them or not, they need to be given a hard time for being either obnoxious or a fake. These childish types ought to be toyed with and treated with condescension even if it might mean losing a sale… I got off topic there, but I have a lot to say, and I feel better after having said it. I don’t take pills, so it’s either this or $250 an hour to sit on a couch in Orange County. Back to “we”.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
The advantage to those using “us” and “we”, whether it is legitimate or phantom, is clear. “We” and “us” represent numbers greater than “one” and with numbers comes safety. Safety from having to directly face responsibility. Someone else in the back of the pack may get devoured, but those at the head will not. Not all who use “us” and “we” are misrepresenting themselves. I’ll use Time Warner Cable and AT&T as an example. Try holding them accountable when things go wrong. Just call Time Warner Cable next time you have a problem or call AT&T when your unlimited data has been slowed due to too much usage, but your contract never said anything about that. They will transfer your call from person-to recording-to person, and let you listen to a recording for so long that by the time you speak to a human being you’re too worn down to plead your case. It’s rarely clear who is responsible, and when it is clear, that person is well insulated by safety in numbers. They will deflect your blame to someone else who will do the same by transferring your call to yet another person, and there you are, on hold, listening to music… the soundtrack of being caught in the corporate-circle jerk.
This is the ilk that these phony one man operations strive to be like. They ought to be ridiculed and made to feel shame for it. Whether you are dealing with a “phantom we” or the legitimate “we”, like Time Warner Cable and AT&T, it is not a good thing. The use of “we” and “us” is used for many reasons… none of them to benefit you. To borrow an expression from Jeffrey Gitomer: They will “we-we” all over you.
“We” and “us” gives the individual or the big company the opportunity to play good cop/bad cop should something go wrong. An individual playing the phantom “we” game might say, “Let me talk to my ‘partner’ and see what he says". I’ll say with childlike innocence, and without any tell that I believe a game is being played with me, “I think it is better for me to talk to your partner and see what he says. After all, I’ve been working on, and fine tuning my pitch, with some finer points that you will surely miss. Since you are on my side and want to convince him, I’m sure you would agree that it is better for me to talk to him to make sure none of the details are missed". It is satisfying to watch him squirm in search for a response that doesn’t reveal him to be a phony, in a case where there really is no partner, or “phantom bad cop”. You should always demand to speak with him. If he does exist, you’re cutting through all of the nonsense and telling your story rather than allowing someone else to tell it.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Depending on the seriousness of the project or business I’m doing, I’ll ask who the “we” and the “us” are, and see how they respond. It really gets interesting when their response is, “our team". “Our team.” Hmm. If you break that down into two parts, “our” and “team”, you’ll notice that on their own, each means more than one. So, in using the word “our”, the individual has already at least doubled the number of people in his “organization". If you look at “team”, you’ll notice that that word on it’s own also means more than one, and possibly thousands more. If they combine “our” with “team”, they have at least two for "our", plus at least another two for "team", thus converting a "one man operation" into a four man operation, or possibly many more as convenience requires, just by using a couple of words. If you inquire about who the "we" is, and they hesitate or give a vague answer, congratulations: you discovered The Phantom "We" again. After breaking down the meaning of words like that, I ought to tell you this: if someone misuses the language or has bad grammar in this context, that is not what is important to me, as long as it is clear what they mean. You can communicate in crystal clear fashion with the worst grammar and communicate in vague and mysterious ways with excellent grammar. My focus is the deception that results from the misuse of words like “we”, “us”, "they", and "team".
If it is a small shop with which you’re dealing, and the guy says “we’ll take care of it for ya”, you have to use your judgment as to whether you want to risk aggravating him when he talks about “we”. If you have the proper way about you, and in a lighthearted manner, you can usually find out, but often it is just the man’s manner of speaking. In certain cases it would make you an unnecessarily tedious person to question who the “we” is. Although, it is easy enough to ask if it is he who is doing the work in-house, or if he is farming the job out. As they say, ya gotta know when ta hold’em and when ta fold’em. There: I just gave a perfect example of when you’d be a jerk for asking who the “we” is (in this case the effective "we" is represented as “they”). You’re not risking being taken in any way by not asking, and, as you’re sure to hear the cheap phrase, “does it really matter?”, from many people when you talk about a topic like this, this is a case where they may be right for asking.
When dealing with someone for the first time, I will sometimes tell them that I want to meet all of the people that are going to have their hands in the project. They usually say that that isn’t possible because, “our designer is in Idaho” or some of our team “works remotely”. In that case I ask them, “other than you, is there anyone else who is responsible for this project"? At that point they will either say they are solely responsible or another name will come to the surface, and I’ll ask if there’s anyone else in addition to that person. That sets the tone that he, she, or they, need to pay attention to the details of my project. When I don’t do this kind of thing in the beginning, I often regret it.
The worst thing is when they mess things up and you have to confront them about it because you didn’t properly question them in the beginning. Sometimes it happens in reverse: They present themselves as a one man operation and when something goes wrong, they invoke The Phantom “We”, and say that they have many other projects. They’ll tell you that they don’t have time to re-do the work for you, and you have to explain to them that they don’t get to take credit for work that they didn’t do correctly. Then they’ll tell you about all of the extra work you are causing their “team” and how they have deadlines on other projects. Now they use their phantom team to protect them and try to get you to accept a sub-par product. They don’t feel bad about deceiving you and you shouldn’t feel bad about asking questions and confronting them when you discover something isn’t right. Like anyone creating an illusion, they get defensive and upset, hoping you’ll back off and not discover their charade. I will ask them why there was no mention of their “team” in the beginning. These are the kind of people who will all of a sudden want to have conversations on the phone "because it's easier". Don't do it. As long as these conversations are done though email, they know they may one day be held accountable for the words they said and the promises they've made. As long as you are reasonable, they'll start to wonder about their reputation online, and finish the job out of a fear that you may make the experience public in the form of a review. To quote my friend Ben Tremaglio, “customer service begins with the threat of confrontation”. In cases like this, I confront them head on and say exactly what details were missed and each way that they misrepresented themselves. I’ve found that it is best to handle confrontations alone and not involve your significant other. You either go too far for their taste ("did you really have to say that?") or not far enough ("why didn't you tell him...?"). They often hate confrontation… Unless it’s with you. C'est la vie.
Norman Roy Grutman, a trial attorney, gave some advice for finding the right lawyer in a C-Span interview, which is sound advice for hiring people in almost any field. When asked, “How would a person properly choose a good lawyer?”, he said: “There’s got to be a chemistry between the client and the lawyer. Who might make a good husband or a good wife for any one person, might be a very unsuitable choice for another person. And I think that you should go about it using recommendations from people that you know and apply the same common sense judgments that you make in sizing people up… asking questions, many people are afraid to ask lawyers the kinds of questions you’ve asked me, such as, “where did you get your background?”; “how much experience have you had”; “why do you charge whatever you charge… what are the reasons for that?”; “who will be serving me, will it be just you, or how many little flunkies and toadies and substitutes and replacements will there be?” Know what you’re getting.”
I have me. I don’t need “we”, and you don’t either. Be strong enough to say “I” and “me”. And so, always demand to see the “we”.
Thank you for reading...
(Link to Ben Zimmer's article in The New York Times titled "We")