Jonathan Paul Katz

What’s Wrong with ‘You’?


ISSUE 82 | SECOND PERSON | JAN 2018

“You should not do this.”

I pause. I am not confident of what I am writing, and to be frank, there is nothing wrong with what I am writing. In this case, I am writing some tips for making documents usable by screen-reader softwares, and thus by most blind computer users. Specifically, I remind my reader not to make text an image. But something feels wrong. I want to write, “this should not be done,” or, “it is not good practice to make text an image.”

The “you” feels so direct. In my education, I was trained out of using “you.”

We learn, at school and work, that “you” is unprofessional, too informal, and not “"good writing.”" Academic discourse demands a distant and elevated tone. This writing has “five-dollar words” and a sentence structure that can confuse even the most literate of readers. In corporate offices, “you” is unprofessional outside of marketing contexts. Buzzwords and growth-talk replace actually addressing the burdened reader of a corporate report. Instead of you, we get the “located subject” in academia and “growth agents” in the corporate world. This is not good writing. This is using language to mask potentially ridiculous ideas, actual theft of ideas or resources, or both. There is a barrier between the reader and the text that they read! Without “you,” the reader is often not considered, nor their critiques.

Why is “you” avoided, beyond prevailing custom? I can identify three reasons. Firstly, we often associate “you” with children'’s books or educational material. Thus many editors consider writing with “you” to be condescending. Anyone who has suffered through an academic paper that drops every theorist’s name knows that removing “you” does not remove condescension. Secondly, English is a language that fears repetition; “ you” seems too repetitive. Never mind that literature in most other languages is far more likely to contain repeated words. The biggest reason, however, is that “ you” makes the writer far more considerate of the reader. It is much harder for us to convince someone of a bad idea or proposal when we have to speak to them directly— - think of all the work that goes into advertising.

The second person is also a matter of identity, and speaking to our readers with identity in mind. Writing without “you” is a cue for class, race, and ability. “Good writing” is often an indicator of class. To understand it, we must spend time in spaces that use this language. These include universities, elite workplaces, or certain social circles. This is one method by which the Left in the United States remains the domain of wealthier people. Class mobility or solidarity means nothing when social acceptance hinges on understanding sentences like “The Hegelian dialectic between the subaltern and the hegemon is a classic conundrum of Marxist theory and praxis.” It is also a cue for race. Why is this sort of babble acceptable?. Why are the perfectly fine varieties of English found in African-American communities not? A sentence in “Black English” with “you” as the subject is far easier to understand than much of writing today. (I am not exempt as an author from this critique.) But that writing is not “white” enough. And then there is the matter of ability. People with cognitive disabilities cannot always understand indirect directions. “"You” makes clear what the reader must know. But in a society that does not care about cognitive disability, “you” is too simple. What is wrong with simple words, especially when the goal is to convince others?

As someone on the autism spectrum, I myself struggle with this indirection from time to time. Sure, I am smart (or so I am told). Yet because of my brain, I do not always immediately understand indirect commands or social cues. I do understand “"you.”" I should be better at using “"you,”" especially after years of embarrassment, ableism, and occasional hilarity from my misunderstandings. One time, I even got fired from a part-time job, because I did not understand that my employer's general complaints were actually veiled criticism of my work. If that employer had been direct, maybe I would have been able to quit that thankless gig on my own terms, and I would certainly have done a better job. And that is a later example of many smaller incidents. Certainly, as someone who benefits from “you,” I ought to be adept at its use.

And yet I have also had to learn to write in a different way. Some of it is because I studied at elite institutions. I also dropped off an academic track where “you” is certainly not the norm. Some of it is because I read publications like this one, filled with distant discourse without “you.” Some of it is from years of messaging from social settings, the internet, and books: “you” is not “good writing.” So when I use it, there is something forbidden about it. And forbidding— - directly addressing a reader I have never met is, honestly, a bit scary.

What is so scary about “you”? When talking to the reader in the second person, we must imagine the “you.” In doing so, much of the awkwardness of conversations that normally disappears in written text comes flying back. When writing, we must consider positions of class, race, or gender. We confront the fear of seeming “condescending” or “rude.”" We deal with the stress of making oneself ourselves understood. To be fair, writers should generally think about these things. It is easier to avoid doing so when the reader is more ephemeral than “you.” This fear and avoidance of “you” seems to happen often in the spaces we associate with the left: academia, books, and various publications. Right-wing writers are far less reluctant to use “you,” and that is a good thing. We can learn from them. It is odd that people so committed to an egalitarian future are frightened of addressing their readers. Maybe it is because “you” makes them think about who “you” might be— - and that is not so egalitarian.

“You” has other meanings, of course. Who is a writer addressing with “you?” In the tech world, “you” seems to mean another well-educated, probably male, probably straight reader. At universities, “you” seems to mean a reader who comes from an affluent background, who is probably white, with educated parents. In so many places, “you” is a native speaker of the language in which the reader is addressed. Never mind second-language speakers! In many places, “"you”" is able-bodied, or with a "typical" mind. I do not think these challenges are impossible to address. Surely, a new “good writing” sometimes uses “you.” At the same time, a good writer can navigate this problem elegantly, without needless and overwritten performance.

Sometimes “you” does not work. In some cases it is awkward, and in some cases it is completely unnecessary to address the reader. I chose, consciously, not to write this piece in the second person. I was tempted to do so. However, the number of “yous” flying around would have been far too confusing. And, of course, there are whole genres of writing where “you” is not ideal. But this does not exempt a writer from taking his reader into account: do they need to be addressed? Will they understand this language? Are we, as writers, using styles for their effect or to simply show off our words and education and ability to speak in a certain way?

Good, progressive writing is not fancy, nor is it flowery. In fact, it is beautifully simple. (Whether this piece meets that metric is not for me to decide.) In that spirit, sometimes it uses “you.”? It is progressive and radical to invite the reader into what they read, and “you” is something we should all take the time to relearn to use . If necessary, we must also consider why we have not used “you” in the past. To that end, we should ask ourselves as writers:

“What’s wrong with ‘you’?”