Organisational Grammar Occasional Lesson: “You” in the Accusative

3 May 2016

Organisational Grammar Occasional Lesson: “You” in the Accusative

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I received one of those calls today.  It started out with the usual exchange of pleasantries and went downhill from there.

The caller commenced the next sentence with, “You didn’t…….”  I bristled. First, because I did…and it took quite a longer time to achieve than I expected.   And, second, because the word, “you” in the second person singular was used, whether deliberately or otherwise, to infer blame, inadequacy, inferiority or anything else.  To add insult to injury, it was delivered with palpable condescension.

So, like any normal human en garde, I recalled for central service all unessential blood flow to peripheral arteries and veins.  I was ready and waiting to be admonished a little more for not doing the thing that I had actually done well.

How many times has that happened to you?  You might expect that a meeting will go smoothly and then, out of the blue, a manager or a peer launches into a tirade of what you supposedly didn’t do or said contrary to what you did.  Your aggressor refuses to let the facts or even an explanation get in the way of a good “You-ing”.   Target or witness, how do you feel?  Motivated?  Energised?  Warm and fuzzy?  I don’t think so.  Do you stand there with your mouth open, helplessly trying to blurt out a “But, but, but..” to a pair of judgmental ears?  Maybe.

When I reflected on my experiences of  “You-ings” reported by workshop delegates and being “You-ed” myself,  I recognised that they fit into a couple of categories.  The “You-er” may:

  •  Work in a toxic organisational culture and cascades through their teams and/or mimics any unenviable leadership behaviour demonstrated to them.
  •  Work in a culture of blame and is motivated by a constant need to cover their own butt.
  •  See a power differential where they are superior and you are inferior.  A great example is this classic dumped on me many moons ago, “You need to know your place….”   Oops…I am female and I fervently believe that all homo sapiens were created equal.

If it’s all about putting the patient at the centre of care, you might wonder how this is really possible when on the face it, “You-ing” among health professionals appears  near as frequent as footy tipping.    In commenting on bullying and its influence on safety in hospitals,  Russell, Anstey and Wells (2015) suggest creating boundaries around what is acceptable interpersonal behaviour to foster a culture of safety and trust.  If a line is to be drawn, “You-ing” fits squarely below the line.

Maybe it’s just a bad habit.  In all fairness, “You-ing” could have evolved from something as caring and inocuous as

“Mrs Smith, You didn’t open your bowels today”.

No matter how “You” in the accusative has crept into anyone’s vocabulary, it, like the N word, should be rooted out.  There are plenty of constructive ways to establish what has or hasn’t been done without apportioning blame and judgment before the facts are known.


Russell LM, Anstey MHR, Wells S.   Hospitals Should Be Exemplars of Healthy Workplaces, Med J Aust 2015; 202 (8): 424-426.

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