The function of “we” in plural and non-plural discourse

One of the most instantly recognizable linguistic features of open plurality is the frequent use of “we” where singlets would typically say “I.” I recall being struck by this myself in my first contact with the tulpa community and finding it simultaneously charming and weird. It’s weird, of course, because one body or online user account doesn’t usually speak for several identities in greater society. But there’s always been something strangely attractive about it to me, and on further thought I propose that it’s not attractive just to me but to society in general.

Why do I think that? Because even singlets say “we” regularly where it doesn’t seem grammatically and semantically warranted (this is occasionally referred to as nosism). Here are a few examples:

  • Writers of many types of non-fiction and technical writing may indicate the reader and perhaps a broad community as well as themselves, although actually writing only for themselves (“From the previous results, we determine that one plus one equals two”).
  • Many people frequently make assertions about huge communities or groups (“As Republicans/Muslims/Americans/bloggers/people, we agree…”) when the speaker can hardly claim to be representing them fairly only by virtue of being part of the group. (And if you are plural yourself, have you ever said “we” and spoken for your systemmates without actually getting their input explicitly? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you have.)
  • Self-talk frequently includes phrases like “Let’s go ahead and do that,” even when nobody else is present or involved in the topic at hand.
  • And while it falls outside the realm of normal discourse and its exact function in this argument is difficult to place, the royal we should hardly be ignored.

I had to think very hard while writing the preceding list to avoid confusing matters by using “we” to refer to people in general! That’s just another sign of how firmly it’s ingrained in most people’s thought processes.

So what’s going on here? Is this just a random artifact of the way language works, or a habit that comes from frequently speaking on behalf of groups? (While I haven’t studied this in great depth, everything I know, including my German and Latin, points to this phenomenon extending beyond just English.) It could be I’m making something out of nothing here; it’s certainly true that it’s easier to refer to a group of people as “we” if it seems even slightly reasonable to do so than to use awkward circumlocutions or repeat the subject again. But I’d like to suggest several other reasons.

One big psychological advantage of “we” is that it spreads out responsibility. I can still remember a time in my early teens when I was working on some sort of repair with my father and he inadvertently broke a part. Shortly thereafter I was running over what happened as part of our problem-solving process and carefully noted that “we” had broken the part, and my father commended me for accepting part of the responsibility. If I do something bad, I can deflect the responsibility to a group; if the group does something good I can take partial credit for it. Of course, on occasion shared responsibility means I have to accept partial responsibility for something bad I had no hand in, as in the example above. But when that happens it doesn’t usually feel bad because I get to share the responsibility with the group, I don’t have to take it all on myself – and it feels like I’m being nice and helping someone else feel better at the same time.

On a related note, being able to identify as part of a group is simply a natural human inclination. There’s something deeply comforting about being able to say “we” for myself and Greta; in so many cases where I would otherwise be alone in thinking or doing something, I’m not. (And this is coming from a pretty strong introvert.) I think this is in fact one of the things that drew me so strongly to the idea of plurality from the beginning. When plurality is considered, it’s a great way to make both the speaker and her systemmates feel included and part of a greater whole. And when authors say “we,” thereby including their readers, it can help them feel more connected to those readers.

Simply put, I suspect that saying “I” involves higher stakes than “we.” Saying “I” makes it more clear what specifically you think, and after explicitly identifying yourself as the cause or the source of an idea, you can’t possibly walk it back. On the other hand if your statement is made on behalf of a group, you have a lot more ability to change your explanation of your relationship to that statement later, should it become necessary. “I” is very personal and can even become scary. “We,” with or without systemmates, is comforting and familiar.

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One Response to The function of “we” in plural and non-plural discourse

  1. thisica says:

    FE (the Friendly Esquire (a title I have adopted–doesn’t like to use personal names in public…)): We (ha!) have had a long history of saying ‘we’, ever since late childhood (we have been a ‘we’ since 2002)… though in several occasions, that got us into some problems, especially when someone listening to us assumes (as per cultural expectations) the ‘one self per body’ and then attempts to correct us by saying “it’s not we, it’s ‘you'”.

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