Using "we" increases perceptions of receptiveness: Teaching implications

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“Receptiveness refers to the willingness to seek out, attend to, and fairly evaluate opposing information” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 1). As a professor, I strive to be receptive. And just as importantly, I also strive to be perceived as receptive. I want my students and colleagues to see me as someone who seeks out, attends to, and fairly evaluates information that does not mesh with how I see the world. This perception of receptiveness has real-world consequences: “[P]eople…perceived to be receptive are more persuasive, elicit greater openness and interest in interaction from others, and are seen as more trustworthy and intelligent” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 1).

There are a few things we can do to boost perceptions of receptiveness. First, we can use hedge words, like “probably.” When teaching psychology, that’s not difficult. Our science deals in probabilities, not certainties. Asking questions that encourage others to share their views also makes it more likely (hedge!) that they will perceive us as receptive. Just about every time (hedge!) we ask students to discuss in small groups, we are asking for their views. Another way to boost perceptions of receptiveness is to express positive emotions. I learned a long time ago that teaching face-to-face is no different from acting—or, rather, improv. When I enter the classroom, I put on my (upbeat) teaching persona. Anything else that is going on in my work life or my personal life becomes irrelevant. I didn’t create that persona so that I would be perceived as more receptive. I did it because I want my students to have a pleasant classroom experience; I want them to want to come back. But boosting students’ perceptions of my receptiveness is a nice bonus.

In an interesting experiment, researchers wondered if using the pronoun “we” instead of “you” could also increase perceptions of receptiveness. Their reasoning is that “you” can come across as adversarial and aggressive. We know that the use of “you” in the context of interpersonal conflict can make things much worse. “We,” on the other hand, implies a shared experience. (See how I used “we” two sentences ago?)

Researchers asked participants about their views on lowering the legal drinking age. Participants then read what they were told were excerpts from a politician’s speech. The speech argued for what the participants did not want. For example, if a participant said they were opposed to lowering the drinking age, they were asked to read a speech that favored lowering the drinking age. For the independent variable, participants were randomly assigned to read a “you” speech or a “we” speech. For example, one of the “you” speeches started with, “If you oppose lowering the drinking age, you are essentially denying young people the opportunity to develop responsible drinking habits. Are you prepared to be responsible for stifling their personal growth and denying them the chance to learn how to consume alcohol responsibly?” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 4). That language certainly feels adversarial and aggressive to me. In contrast, the corresponding “we” speech started with, “If we oppose lowering the drinking age, we are essentially denying young people the opportunity to develop responsible drinking habits. Are we prepared to be responsible for stifling their personal growth and denying them the chance to learn how to consume alcohol responsibly?” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 4). The “we” speech feels very different.

The researchers had two dependent variables: how receptive (willing to listen to new ideas) is the politician perceived to be and how persuasive was the message. The “we” messages resulted in perceiving the politician as more receptive and finding the message more persuasive.

In a follow-up study (study 3), the researchers used a different message, but this time added “one” as a level of the independent variable to see if “we” increased or if “you” decreased perceptions of receptiveness. In the cover story, the researchers told the participants that they would be reading messages from a new online social issues discussion group where group members were writing about refugees from Afghanistan. Participants were told that they were moderating these messages. For example:

Tucker Carlson called it the other night. Biden lied. Meanwhile none of the other news stations even criticized Biden. That’s what I am being told anyway, I stopped watching those long ago The fact that [one/we/you] never leave [one’s/our/your] little bubble of confirmation is sad… [One/We/You] never want [one’s/our/your] ideas challenged because [one/we/you] tie them so close to [one’s/our/your] emotions and personality, so anyone who challenges these ideas challenges [one’s self/us/you] (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 7).

On a 7-point scale, participants rated “we” as the most receptive (approximately 5.0), “one” next (approximately 4.3), and “you” as the least receptive (approximately 3.1). On perceptions of aggressiveness, “you” came across as the most aggressive (approximately 4.3) with no statistical difference between “we” (approximately 2.6) and “one (approximately 2.8) (Hussein & Tormala, 2024).

In yet another follow-up study (study 4), the researchers parsed the “you” condition into an adversarial you and a supportive you. The adversarial “you” condition begins with this sentence: “You and your politics have become so polarized that you can’t even imagine living in the same state as people you disagree with” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 9). The supportive “you” condition begins with these two sentences: “Totally see what you mean and where you’re coming from. Politics have become so polarized that you can’t even imagine living in the same state as people you disagree with” (Hussein & Tormala, 2024, p. 9). They found that perceived receptiveness and aggressiveness to the supportive “you” and “we” conditions were the same. The adversarial “you” was perceived to be less receptive and more aggressive.

All of that is to say that if our goal is perceived receptiveness, using “we” is the safest route. “You” works, but only if it is surrounded by supportive words to make it clear that the message is not meant to be adversarial.

If a student’s first impression of us comes from our syllabus, using “we” pronouns may increase student perceptions of our receptiveness. When we do use “you,” we should surround it with supportive words.

[If a student’s first impression of you comes from your syllabus, using “we” pronouns may increase student perceptions of your receptiveness. When you do use “you,” you should surround it with supportive words.]

 

Reference

Hussein, M. A., & Tormala, Z. L. (2024). You versus we: How pronoun use shapes perceptions of receptiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 110, 104555. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2023.104555

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.