“We” is a very complicated word. It is a word that shapes and reflects human relationships without our even realizing how it is happening. But isn’t “we” merely the first person plural? Well, not really. In reality it signals power and status levels in social and business exchanges.
People who are high status or in positions of power tend to use the pronoun “we” far more often than lower status/power people who are more inclined to use the word “I.”1 When your boss’s boss uses the word “we,” a basic question should go through your head: “Whom, exactly is the ‘we’ referring to?” For example, when the president says, “We will really have to tighten our belts to get through this recession;” is he/she including himself/herself? Personally, I doubt it. And if he or she is not including him or herself, why don’t they just say “you?” I hope you did not have to take too long to answer that.
It is important to understand the use of “we” in a work environment because when someone uses the word “we” without including everyone, we are implicitly accepting a one-down power relationship. By accepting the non-comprehensive “we” you are symbolically bending your knee. You never thought of that, did you?
Some examples may help illustrate this powerful linguistic sleight of hand:
- When your boss says, “We have decided that you will move off the branding project.” Do you remember agreeing to it?
- When your doctor asks, “How are we feeling today?” Does he tell you about his/her health? If he does not, then it is a patronizing comment.
In the first example your boss is using the exclusive use of the word “we.” It is first person plural as far as he and his peers are concerned, but it has excluded you. In the second example, the doctor has included himself where he has not earned the right to be included. It is the inclusive use of the word “we.”
Are You Included or Excluded?
So this is the core of the issue—there are both inclusive and exclusive uses of the word “we.” If the speaker is high status, they can and will decide to include or exclude various people. It softens the blow of, for example, the belt tightening, by implying that “we” are in this together. The same is probably true of the patronizing physician.
People in lower status positions seem to use the pronoun “I” far more than “we.” The use of the first person singular does not presume anything about relationships—it is just referring to oneself. It does not ask anyone else to accept a one down, up or sideways power relationship.
The problem with these uses of “we” is not that they are inclusive and exclusive, but that we do not distinguish between them. The result is that we are often passively accepting status differentials. This is only an issue when that differential has not been generally accepted.
When a peer is promoted from the ranks and starts using “we” without including either him or yourself, it may feel awkward—and it should. They have not earned the right to use the exclusive “we.” You may not feel comfortable bending your knee yet. They do not yet have the gravitas to expect a genuflection. But make no mistake about it—that is exactly what your new boss is asking you to do. If you do not clarify the pronoun, you have accepted the relationship. If, however, they use the pronoun “you,” they are at least being transparent and honest.
And it seems to be primarily the European languages that only have this one form of “we.”2 Most Asian and Native American Languages have several forms of the first person plural that allows them to be clear about who is included and excluded. It seems like a more honest and transparent way to make status claims.
So your ears should perk up every time someone says “we” because they may be asking you to accept a power differential. If they are, you may or may not agree with it. If you don’t, you might want to ask, “Don’t you mean you not we?”
Some form of this pronoun clarification may be at the basis of the old Lone Ranger joke, in which menacing looking Native Americans surround the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and asks, “What should we do now?” To which Tonto responds, “What do you mean we, Kemo Sabe?”
1. Payne, T. (1997). Describing Morphosyntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Pennebaker, J. (2011). The Secret Life Of Pronouns. New York: Bloomsbury Press.