Over the last few decades, academia has become less wedded to the idea of objectivity and formality. In the humanities, as we have questioned the history of deferring to the white European male voice and considering it universal, many have questioned whether any observer can be objective. Even in physics, the discovery of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle introduced the idea that the observer affects the phenomenon observed and is not separate from it.
An alternate approach to trust involves connection rather than distance. We relate to the writer as to a friend or loved one rather than an authority figure. The writer reveals their humanity and particular responses. A sense that the writer is being open with us and inviting us into an intimate conversation leads to trust.
An argument could be both intimate and formal, like a marriage vow, but that combination is rare. Usually, the more comfortable we are and the more we share about ourselves in an argument, the less formal the style. Conversely, the less formal the style, the friendlier and more connected the argument usually feels. Of course, for this approach to work, the writer has to make the intimate conversation seem appealing and convince us they are genuine in their openness. The writer’s approach and knowledge of how the reader will likely respond are key here. An informal and intimate approach can backfire if it comes across as presumptuous or invasive. The reader may be uncomfortable with the degree of closeness presumed.
So how does a writer create a sense of intimacy with a reader they will probably never meet? The more the argument can follow the style of a close conversation, the more readers may consciously or unconsciously go along with that feeling. Using an informal style will often help. That might look like casual language, the use of humor, some simpler or abbreviated sentence structure or occasional questions interjected. The most direct and obvious way to create the feeling of a conversation, however, is to declare it to the reader by using the “I,” the “we” or the “you” instead of an impersonal voice.
Many of us have heard the advice that academic arguments should never use “I.” In fact, many arguments in academic journals nowadays do use “I” on occasion, especially in introductions and conclusions. They use it judiciously when the personal experience of the writer is relevant to the argument. In addition to offering an emotional connection, personal anecdotes give readers a sense that the author is a person who is reaching out to us as people.
Using the first person “I” to talk about an experience that many people share can create a folksy sense of the author as a humble, ordinary person we can relate to. We might think that drawing attention to the writer’s ordinariness would undermine credibility. Of course, if we are looking to find out how black holes work, we know we need to turn to an expert. But if the topic is less technical and closer to everyday life, we may trust someone down to earth and easy to relate to more than we trust a distant authority figure.
When we use ‘you’ we are demanding the reader’s attention. We can think of it as taking the reader by the hand, tapping them on the shoulder, or grabbing their collar, depending on how forceful the tone is. Papers written for college classes can use “you” on occasion, especially to command the reader’s attention in an introduction or a conclusion.
A writer may use ‘we’ to convey that they are not only in conversation with the reader but on the same side or in the same boat. This approach is often combined with a reference to a shared identity, an appeal we will explore in the next section. It can also be used, however, to speak more generally about the writer and readers as fellow humans, as in the sentence, “We often forget that our parents were ever new to parenting.”