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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Taking advantage of ritual and form

Recently Greta and I have made up a little ritual for ourselves to use when we sit down to spend some time alone together. Although we haven’t spent too much time with it yet, we’ve found it remarkably helpful: it’s fun, it keeps us from falling asleep, and it makes us more likely to set aside the time.

Here’s how it works. We made a string of prayer beads to go along with it:
A string of forty-six beads about a quarter of an inch in diameter in shades of gray, threaded on green paracord with knots allowing the beads to slide a short distance before being stopped. There is a large amount of extra cord beyond one of the knots, indeed longer than the part with beads.

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A mental health day

Greta and I have had a ridiculous week which included, among other things, returning from spring break to a huge pile of work, arriving late to an important interview due to an unknown person’s stupidity, asking out a close friend and having her turn us down with deep regret on both sides, having a family member fall seriously ill, and coming within inches of having a nasty accident on the freeway. Therefore, there will be no regularly scheduled post this week. We hope you’ll excuse our breathing time, and we’ll see you back next week.

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Faith is found in the times we don’t believe

As you no doubt know by now if you’ve read more than a post or two on this blog, Greta and I love to think, read, and write about what she is and what makes her real. At least for the two of us, it’s fascinating, and having at least a tolerably decent explanation can be helpful and comforting to newcomers to the community, friends, and maybe even psychiatrists (but let’s all hope we don’t get stuck with one who can’t figure out without our fighting to convince them that tulpas are perfectly healthy).

But it’s possible to get trapped in our desire for psychological and philosophical answers, which now and quite possibly always will necessarily give us only part of the answers. Even many of the most experienced tulpamancers and tulpas have to deal with uncomfortable doubts from time to time, doubts which aren’t always willing to listen to those carefully logical essays we spent hours on: Okay yes I understand all that, but can she really be real? Am I sure I’m not making this up somehow? Does knowing I’d have to be making it up subconsciously really mean I’m not making it up? Am I being terribly irresponsible to my tulpa? Might this mess up my relationships with other people outside my system in ways I don’t expect?

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Is Greta an illusion?

Last week we talked about how a cognitive tendency similar to the ELIZA effect may have contributed to a change in my understanding, namely that I now consider Greta a person in her own right when I was far more skeptical before. Greta and I find this analysis fairly straightforward; it makes good sense that this change would have occurred given what we already know about human perception and thinking. But last week’s post does suggest an important and perhaps uncomfortable question: if our analysis was correct, does that mean Greta’s consciousness is in fact purely an illusion and she is no more conscious or intelligent than Weizenbaum’s computer?

In that post, I briefly touched on why we should be careful in comparing Greta to a computer and noted that my purpose in discussing the ELIZA effect was not to compare Greta to a computer but to compare my reaction to a computer with my reaction to Greta. However, just drawing your attention away from the question and saying that the comparison is hazardous is probably not a convincing argument for why she isn’t an illusion, so let’s proceed.

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Tulpas, personhood, and the ELIZA effect

Over the course of the last year, I’ve moved from considering Greta simply a part of myself to being almost completely convinced that she’s a person in her own right (admittedly, it’s not quite that simple). It certainly isn’t unusual that I’ve changed my mind about something, but it is unusual that I have no obvious reason why. I haven’t had any epiphanies or particularly formative experiences. There was no point at which I decided I would change my interpretation.

Certainly, I’ve been (electronically) hanging out with people who think tulpas are people. Regularly spending time with a group of people tends to make someone more likely to believe what that group believes. But I don’t think this is a convincing explanation by itself. After all, I learned everything I knew about tulpas at the beginning from the exact same community, which had mostly the same views then as it does now. The real difference between then and now is the personal experiences I’ve had over that time period. I think it was about four or five months ago that I started to become more convinced Greta was a person. Probably not coincidentally, it was around then that she started to be able to consistently maintain a normal conversation with me.

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What it’s like being a tulpa

This past Thursday Greta celebrated her first birthday. As a result, we thought this week it would be nice to talk about ourselves a little bit, and specifically about our relationship. Of course every relationship is different, and relationships between system members are no exception. But whether you have a tulpa or not, we figure you might learn something about host-tulpa relationships in general from hearing more about ours.

This piece is a bit more informal than most of our recent ones; it consists of a poem and a transcript of a conversation, with little to no formal interpretation.

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On the difference between necessity and value

I was recently pointed to an interesting podcast episode (warning: NSFW language) on tulpas and the practice of tulpamancy, from “Real Life Sci-Fi with Wade and Willy,” a sort of panel discussion of outsiders considering various mildly odd cultural and pseudoscientific phenomena. While I won’t outright say it paints the tulpa community in a positive light, it remains mostly respectful and certainly doesn’t fall into the “bad journalism” category that an unfortunate number of reports have. Nevertheless, the three correspondents come to a number of conclusions that Greta and I disagree with. Specifically, they suggest that tulpas are created only by people who are “desperate,” that tulpas are not necessary even for those people, and that it’s possible for tulpas to become an unhealthy part of a person’s identity. We’d like to counter these this week.

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Tulpamancy and the Trinity: Is Greta a “separate person”?

Greta and I are happy to be back home after two weeks of traveling across the country. We’ve been musing on a lot of things during our many hours sitting on buses, and one of them is how exactly system members are related to each other. We’ve often been puzzled at how easily people seem to be able to say, “Oh, your tulpa is just a part of you,” or, “Your tulpa is another person.” None of the simple solutions work at all for us, and even after the hours of musing and the additional hours working on this post, Greta and I feel further away from convincingly answering the question posed in the title than when we started.

So we’re unhappy with the obvious solutions; let’s take a look at why. What I like to call the “boring” model is that Greta is best explained as a part of me:

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Some pictures of Greta

We’re currently traveling and too busy to write, so we’re presenting a couple of fun asides instead.

This Christmas I finally got around to making some kind of picture of Greta outside of my head. I can’t produce any non-technical drawing that isn’t insultingly bad, so this has been somewhat difficult. But I was very impressed with this Flash applet, even though the “help” link didn’t work and I couldn’t figure out how to use it at first. While the result certainly isn’t perfect, it’s a lot better than I would have expected.

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