Have you ever heard someone talk about people in an impersonal, distant manner?
Often impersonal language is used when talking at a big picture level. For example, someone might say, “Join this group.” It is also possible to be impersonal at a more individual level; someone might say, “You will be missed.” Both statements might well be completely true, and yet neither is warm or engaging.
Impersonal statements don’t include the speaker. Instead, the speaker uses metaphors, labels or other devices to talk about people, such as referring to this group. Other times, the speaker uses a passive voice or simply omits part of the sentence, such as omitting the subject in the second sentence: who will miss the person.
Both personal or impersonal language can be right, and both can be effective. It is the context that makes the decision regarding which to use that matters. As always, consider what message you want the listener(s) to hear.
Using impersonal statements makes a statement more abstract. This can create a barrier between you and the listener. It can feel like you are holding back, don’t care about the person and are not invested in them. When statements are more personal, the listener feels the connection, and is more likely to feel valued and included. This is valuable in our current society where people are increasingly dehumanized.
Imagine you are recruiting members for an organization. If you are impersonal and ask them to join the (or this) organization, they are typically left thinking about the organization and what it does, not about the people. It might seem that you are not completely invested in the organization and are holding it at arms length, or that you don’t really care if they join. You can say this if you are speaking to a group in generalities, but it is less effective if you really want the person to join.
If, on the other hand, you ask them to join your organization, you invite them to not just the organization and what it does, but to join you and your fellow members as well. This is a little different; you are not simply looking for a warm body to fill a chair, but people with whom to have a relationship, people with whom you can work. Usually a person will feel more valued if you want their company.
The same applies at the more individual level. If you say someone will be missed, they might hear a generic nicety but not necessarily a heart-felt message. After all, who will miss them? If instead you say, “I will miss you” or “I know all of us here will miss you,” you send a clearer and more authentic message.
In both cases, the use of impersonal language distances the message from the listener. To connect to the listener, the use of personal language is stronger.
Listen to yourself and look at your writing. Do you have a tendency to be impersonal all the time? If so, remain aware and make the effort to be more personal when you really want to connect with someone. If you find you tend to be personal all the time, allow yourself to be less so if you are talking in generalities. Get comfortable with both. Mostly, be aware of the potential effect of both.
This might seem like a fine line. Sometimes it is. It always comes back to what you want your audience to take away from your comments.