Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):
Trust through Distance and Formality
Often when we think of an "authoritative style," we think of someone who speaks impersonally and with confidence, describing how some aspect of reality works without involving their own or the reader with "I," "you" or "we." This approach to earning the reader's trust is all about setting aside the personal to pursue objective, neutral, unbiased pronouncements. It requires the writer to step back from their own personality and feelings to ally their speech with impersonal truth.
A formal style indicates that the writer takes seriously the institution they are speaking for and the rigorous expectations of argument. Traditionally, academic writing is expected to be relatively formal and distanced.
Think of a judge in black robes presiding over a courtroom. The judge is there as an official, not a private individual, and what they say is understood to represent the rule of law, not their personal opinion. When they speak, they use formal language and usually describe events impersonally. As a representative of the law, they represent the government and the interests of the people as a whole.
Think also of a professor asked to speak on a news program about their area of expertise. Despite a climate scientist's degrees and institutional affiliation, we may not trust their personal musings about the future of humanity while flying over melting Greenland ice. Their impersonal style of speech and their focus on facts about climate, reassure us that what they tell us is unbiased, objective, neutral, and vested with all the authority of academic rigor. If they use "we" it will be to refer to their academic colleagues, as in "As climate scientists, we look at overall trends rather than specific snowstorms or heat waves." We will expect the scientist to speak in definite, precise language and to speak with a certain dignity and seriousness.
Formality and distance have their disadvantages as well as their advantages. They can make the argument seem objective and solid, but they can also alienate the reader. After all, distance means we are being pushed away. Our trust in a formal argument depends on our trust in the institutions it represents, like the government or academia. The reader may be disillusioned with these institutions or may never have trusted them in the first place. The reader may not believe that the topic calls for neutrality. We may wonder, too, what personal opinions and experiences and feelings the writer is hiding behind a mask of neutrality.
Trust through Intimacy and Informality
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 Principal 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 writer 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.
The "I" of personal experience
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.
The ordinary 'I'
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.
The attention-getting “you”
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.
The 'we' that unites reader and writer
A writer may use 'we' to convey that they are not only in conversation with the reader other 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."