I began my career teaching French as a foreign language to adult Indian students. My first few classes invariably introduced the classic “Je, Tu, Il, Elle, Nous, Vous, Ils, Elles” (I, you, he, she, we, you plural, they feminine, they masculine). That’s the way most foreign language teachers begin with freshers. I felt immensely proud when my students walked out of their very first class saying, “Je m’appelle Nita” (My name is Nita) or “Il s’appelle Anurag” (His name is Anurag).
Personal pronouns are easy – they showcase the subject of the sentence. And the meaning is clear – same in every language. In what language do we not understand I, You, We, They? Right?
I gradually moved out of foreign language teaching to Intercultural Communication training where my clients worked with counterparts across the globe. They usually knew enough English. Otherwise, most of them wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. So, teaching personal pronouns was not usually on the agenda. However, it is surprising how big a role, personal pronouns could play in creating or resolving conflict in the workplace.
While working on a cultural integration project in Japan, post an acquisition, I had witnessed an interesting phenomenon. Every time employees of the parent company referred to employees of the newly acquired company (or vice versa), “They” was used consistently. “They are …”
Of the ‘Othering’ tools in language, personal pronouns as a category, I feel, are one of the most powerful. They are symptoms of a mindset. A simple “We” of a sentence like “We function this way.” has the potential to build a wall and block out the Other in an instant. However, its effects are long-lasting. They don’t disappear in an instant. Very often, we forget the words that were uttered, but what lingers is how we felt. “We” has the power to create an in-group or an out-group with a simple turn of phrase. And the person who feels shunted into the out-group also feels excluded. By creating the charmed circle around “we” who function a certain way, “you” is implicitly called out as the outsider. Depending on the degree to which “you” feels rejected, the fine demarcation lines have the potential to harden into battle lines. Formation of in-groups and out-groups, often unintentional and unconscious, does not only result in hurt and conflict, but losses in terms of productivity, performance and dollar value as well.
Grammatically correct usage of personal pronouns will add no value if they are unsuccessful in building human connects. Personal pronouns can be a minefield. And the risk is, that most of the time, neither teacher, learner nor user are aware of it. I sometimes feel personal pronouns need to come with a ‘skull’ symbol so that every time we use them, we treat them with caution. They can cause irreparable damage if wielded carelessly.
But all is not lost. We don’t have to resign ourselves to the damaging effects of personal pronouns because unlike a dangerous weapon which can have no restorative value, personal pronouns, if wielded right, pack tremendous power to create a feeling of belonging. This is where teachers and trainers can step in, can take on the responsibility to demonstrate that personal pronouns are not just cogs in the grammatical wheel. They are meaningful blocks that are symptomatic of mindsets as well as powerful collaboration tools that have the potential to build inclusive mindsets.
The “We function this way.” can be turned slightly and re-phrased as “We are used to functioning this way.” And followed up with “How about you? What are you comfortable with?”
The techniques added here are simple:
“Used to functioning” softened it from a cast-in-stone commandment to a current reality that is open to discussion.
“How about you?” took the next step and pulled in the other person into the dialogue. “You” made the other person feel noticed and valued.
“What are you comfortable with?” with this question “You” appeared as the sensitive tool that demonstrated that “your” opinion too mattered.
The stage is set for the conversation to proceed in a spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness.
Language teachers and trainers can shape or reshape the way a person perceives others. It is possible to make a person aware of the unconscious othering tools that we use. It is also possible to prise open closed minds, stretch them and chip away at hardened walls of exclusion by turning the spotlight on the impact and flexibility of personal pronouns.