Distancing language, what it is, and why you must crush it


Meeting-of-the-BoredLast week was rough, as we received not one, not two, but…ok, two grant rejection notices (so sweet and thoughtful of people to wait until after the holiday break to send rejection letters). Whenever I get stressed, my face breaks out, which causes me stress, thus perpetuating a vicious pattern that I call the Pizza Face Cycle. During these times, to avoid scaring small children or potential donors, I usually hole myself in my cubicle, away from the world, listening to 90’s Hip-Hop, coming out every once a while to feed on ramen while avoiding the gaze of cruel or indifferent passersby.

And that’s what happened last week after getting the grant notices. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid several meetings and thus had to bring my face, like a minor Jackson Pollock painting, out in public. It was during one of these meetings that I noticed the nuances of the words we use during meetings. Specifically, how people unconsciously use inclusive or distancing language and how it affects the rest of the group.

Simply put, inclusive language indicates that you consider yourself a part of a team (e.g, “We need to revise our mission statement to include unicorns”) while distancing language indicates that you see yourself not a part of the organization or effort (“You need to revise your mission statement to include unicorns.”) This may seem trivial, you guys, but it is not:

  • New board members will use distancing language when they first join the board. As they identify more and more with the organization, they should start using inclusive language pretty much all the time.
  • If you do a good job at your programs, the clients should see it as THEIR programs, and they will use inclusive language when talking about these programs.
  • Consultants for short-term projects will use distancing language. The longer they are with a project, the more likely they will lapse into inclusive language.
  • Donors and volunteers who are especially invested in the organization will sometimes unconsciously lapse into inclusive language. This is a great sign. I was inviting one of our donors to our holiday party. “We should have beer at the party,” she said. “We totally should!” I said.

Distancing language can be a symptom of a greater problem. For instance, if after a year serving on the board, one of your board member says something like, “So when is your annual dinner this year?” something is not right.

It is also extremely contagious, and if left untreated will infect an entire group. I was on a committee made up of people from several organizations. We were brainstorming ideas about outreach. “I have an idea,” said one person, “you should make a list of all the organizations in the area and then call them individually.” “Great idea,” said another person, “you should also visit the community centers.” “Yeah, face-to-face is really critical for relationship building,” another person chimed in, “you’ll get better results that way.” It was a surreal meeting.

And that’s why you should be on the lookout for distancing language, and when appropriate you must crush it like an overcooked lentil! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Counter with inclusive language. If you use “we” often enough, especially after every instance of distancing language, it will likely stick in people’s minds.
  • Counter with your own distancing language. If you are the lead of a committee, people may direct all their ideas and feedback at you, unconsciously implying that you are going to do all the work. Use distancing language back at them might shock them out of it. E.g., “I completely agree. You should visit the community centers!”
  • Gently call it out. Say something like, “Hi everyone, I notice that we’ve been using ‘you’ a lot. This is a collaborative effort, and all of us are on the team, so let’s try to use ‘we’ more often?” It is helpful to pair this speech with inclusive body language, opening your arms wide and sweeping them toward yourself to emphasize “we.”
  • Follow up individually with people whom you notice use distancing language often and ask for their thoughts on the project. Chances are, they are not yet fully committed, and their language reflects that. The more you communicate with them, the more invested they’ll feel.
  • Be more direct. After several gentle reminders, I just correct people on the spot: “You should have a graphic design student work on the logo—” “We, John, WE should have a graphic design student work on the logo. Don’t make me have to remind you again…”

Once you start paying attention to this, it can be very helpful. Just a quick word of caution, though. At one of the meetings this week, the finance committee, we were discussing VFA’s financial management system. “You should revise your charts of accounts,” said one of the members of the committee, “and you should start developing a dashboard of financial health for the organization.” I knew from experience that I had to put a stop to the distancing language before it went too far. “Whoa, whoa, what’s with the distancing language, lady?!” I said, “You’re a part of this organization, aren’t you? What’s with all the ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that’ here, huh?!”

Apparently, that is not how you’re supposed to talk to a board member, especially a very dedicated one who had given months of notice in advance that she may be taking hiatus from the board to focus on taking care of other important things, so I would like to apologize.

  • Colin Jones

    We should definitely blog more. Because we think this is awesome and spot on!

    • Thanks, Colin. We definitely agree. (I’m actually not using inclusive language right now. I just like to use the royal We from time to time).

  • Ben Alexander

    I just got off the phone with a new volunteer who said “we” four times. #winning. Now I just need to find enough caffeine to get grant reports, applications and LOIs done by Wednesday. Probably shouldn’t mix myself any LOI cocktails…

    • Ben, you should consider grooming the volunteer for the board. Ha ha, LOI cocktail. I could use one right now.

      • Ben Alexander

        Way ahead of you, Vu. Volunteer now, board member later. Bwahahaha.

  • Darryl Evey

    I used to feel this way and then ran across a book that turned this upside down. He blames using “we” as the reason Al Gore lost his Presidential election. Still not sure how I feel about this.

    • Darryl, thanks for the counterpoint. I would say Al Gore had more challenges than his unfortunate overuse of “we.” I’m not sure politics is comparable with nonprofit work. The board, for instance, is so integral to nonprofit orgs. If board members use “you” all the time when talking about the organization, then I think it is a clear sign that something is amiss.

      • Darryl Evey

        I agree on both points. When board members say “we” I get excited. Same for volunteers. I catch myself over using we. “We need to clean the weeds out of the planters in front of the office” rarely means I plan to do any weeding. It just means I am trying not to be the jerk that said, “go pick those weeds”.

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