Pronouns: Who are you calling “We”?

This is a little riff on “Watch Your Language,” the strategy we published yesterday for working across difference.

we 1We say so much about ourselves by the pronouns we use.  Who, for example, is “we”?  “We” generally means or implies “people like us.” Our assumptions about the ways “we” are “like us” are hidden in the pronoun.

 Every “we” includes a “you” and an “I.” So who are “you”? we 2

 “We” hides a world of difference. Because every “we” includes a “they,” people who are not “us.” Our very language constructs a world in which some people are part of our group, some are not. Insiders and outsiders. 

we 4Usually, when we say “we,” we mean a commonality along some, but not necessarily all, of the dimensions on the Dis/Advantage Profile.  For example, the “we” in this article assumes a commonality with people who read English well.

Because Kate and barbara who are writing this blog have such similar Dis/Advantage Profiles, we risk using “we” unconsciously to mean other white, 60ish, lesbian professionals born in Canada, etc.  we 3When we say “we,” it is not immediately clear whether we are speaking from the “we” of shared privilege, or the “we” of shared oppression. 

Who else do we think is in the “we”? 

“We” can be condescending and demeaning.  “We are going to have our medicine now, aren’t we?” 

Watch out for “they.”  “They” are the other.  “They” are people not-like-us.  But in what way are “they” not like us? 

we 5Check out Tobi Hill-Meyer’s post on language for naming trans people.

7 thoughts on “Pronouns: Who are you calling “We”?

  1. Thanks for your language series. As a native French speaker, I get to think about gendered language quite often, not just in terms of pronouns but about every second word or so…

    Just some thoughts relating to my own (privileged educated white straight male etc.) experience. I’ve become recently aware of the universalizing power of the “we” in the context of my academic work (about global environmental politics). When talking about environmental problems (and other issues as well), so many people unquestionably use that universal “we” when asking “what are ‘we’ going to do” about this or that problem, without realizing that if they are thinking about the people who are actually in a position to “do something”, this actually means a tiny elite of privileged global citizens who actually have some political influence over world affairs. In line with what Sheila is saying above, by using that universal “we”, they pretend/hide the fact that most people have no power at all to change the situation. And most importantly, they hide this fact to themselves, and thus often undermine their capacity for realistic action when they happen to be part of the excluded category!

    I enjoy very much comparing languages and how they divide the world in different ways – thanks to my privilege as a French-Canadian who had to learn other languages at a young age ;-) . The Innu (a people native of the region that is now called North-Eastern Quebec and Labrador, that they call Nitassinan) have two words in their language that can translate as “we” in English. “Ninan” means “us but not you”, whereas “tshinan” is an inclusive “we” that translates as “all of us”, in the sense of “me, the ones like me, and you”. I think this show a very different way of relating to other peoples, as different but equal. Instead of recognizing the difference, the “we” of the languages of colonial Europe forcefully include the other into the dominant category. Total language colonialism! Telling of the way of seeing the world that we (!) are taught in this country…

    • Hi – I enjoyed your comment – and I’d just like to segue a tiny bit on one small piece. You say “most people have no power at all to change the situation” True but – one of the things I worked at when teaching Adult Basic Education – Literacy – was helping the students see themselves in the community and in their lives as able to partake and make choices. I know other instructors did likewise – I remember one instructor from the north using a literacy class to get a group started on a community garden – they searched out ideas of what they could/would like to improve in their community and everyone’s awareness of the use of land and issues around pollution. They decided on a community garden and saw it as them improving the environmental situation – which of course it did. And accomplished many goals, improved literacy skills, improved sense of self and ownership, improved ideas about what they wanted to eat, improved beauty and sense of ownership in the community as a whole, etc.

      I’m not suggesting this is a dominant route to working to improve the environment – but as the choices come along, when the ones at the top make decisions, that little group of folks will have opinions and a sense of voice. Call me Pollyanna.

      PS I’m sorry I can’t give credit – I’ve lost all papers that might have provided who, when and where for this story.

      • Thanks for your reply! You are right indeed, it is important to build an empowering “we”, because there are so many things that can be done as collectivities to improve the environment (among others). I guess what I really meant was that elites and folks in power use “we” in a deceitful way that disempowers us and leads us to believe that what they are doing is for the benefit of all. Against that, we must define our own we as collectivities and re-empower ourselves!

  2. It’s interesting to me that years ago I leaned to be very aware of “they” – I automatically adjust to put some content on that mythical group. And very often in discussion I’ll ask people “Who are ‘they’?” in response to “They say…” or “They always…” But it stopped there; I’m not nearly as good at checking “we”. As a lesbian, I’m pretty conscious of not saying “we” in mixed crowds with men and straights – which helps me understand how often I think of “we” as lesbians. But not just lesbians, really the crowd of lesbians I hang out with–a certain age, politically aware (and with a politic that was shaped to activity in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s).
    Well that’s a bit convoluted and unclear – telling me again how much work i have to do on my pronouns. Thanks you guys. (Is guys allowed?)

  3. Thank you, Kate and Barbara, for “Watch Your Language” and your post about “we.” I really like how clear and thoughtful this site is. I have wrestled with “we” in my writing — sometimes, I have meant literacy workers, but then I ask myself, which literacy workers? I am no longer doing literacy work myself, though I am teaching and perhaps many kinds of teaching are a kind of literacy work. I find that toward the end of a piece of writing, I sometimes want to use “we” — meaning something like “people,” a bit like, what are we going to do about this problem, a “we” that might be trying to talk to the audience and draw them in as part of a “we” which “we” are in together, but as your comments show, “we” can be exclusionary and includes assumptions that need to be examined.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sheila. I recognize the dilemma you raise, because I’ve often found myself in the same place, where I don’t want to say “You…” because it sounds arrogant and bossy, and “we” is so appealing as a way of drawing the audience in–except the audience is diverse, and includes many different sorts of “we.”
      And the other option–“One might find…” is too formal and beginning to drop out of the language altogether…

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