by Brad McNally, former Head Editor, INALJ Ohio
“Thank You” Notes and Pronoun Use
As an undergraduate student, I was extremely interested in Linguistics. I would have majored in it, but it wasn’t an option, so I majored in English and took every Linguistics course I could. This makes a person very aware of the way they use language. Late last summer, a friend suggested a book by James Pennebaker titled The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us to me. This book was fascinating, and it really has changed the way I listen to other people (not always for the better). As it is only slightly related, here is a quick rundown: stealth words (pronouns, articles, and prepositions) make up over half our speech and can tell you a large amount of information about the speaker/writer. The simplest thing to consider is the use of pronouns that refer to the speaker (I, me, my) or those that refer to others (you, your). When in meetings, I have definitely made small marks on a paper to indicate the use of pronouns, which becomes half of what you listen for, but it is interesting when you go back and consider the speaker. When bringing up this topic with a coworker recently, we jumped to the topic of writing to thank someone for something – be it a professional correspondence or not – and how to be better at it.
This came down to a point that many people forget: the thank you note is not about yourself, it is about the person you are writing it to. I have been guilty of this in the past as well. Several years ago, someone gave me the advice that you should use your thank you note to answer anything that you didn’t in the interview, or re-emphasize the quality answers you already had given. This is not exactly bad advice, but the thank you note should be a genuine thank you. You are writing to express gratitude to the recipient, not just to continue your sales pitch. To do this, consider the words you are using in the note and think about what exactly you are trying to get across to the reader.
For example, many thank you note templates (and many final notes) begin with “I would like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to discuss this position with you.” While this sounds perfectly reasonable, and is not incorrect, it focuses the attention back on the person writing the note. For some job seekers, this is exactly the intention. The logic seems to be that the more they think about you, the more likely they are to see you as the correct candidate. Instead, if you write your note focusing on what the other person actually did, and thanking them for their effort, you may come across as more appreciative, more genuine, and (hopefully) it may be much more memorable.
Many candidates take an extremely long time to make sure every word on their resume is absolutely perfect. They labor over each phrase, trying to fit it all in to the single page format and make each line count. This effort is wonderful, but the candidate should probably put just as much effort into making sure that the thank you note that follows the interview is just as well crafted. It is easy to fall back into using a template when writing these, but if you focus on the individual and their actual effort/time/etc., you have a good chance of actually standing out in their memory later. If nothing else, consider your use of pronouns before you send that note. If they all are personal pronouns, maybe you should phrase things a little differently.