I pulled at my dog’s leash, guiding him towards the strip of snow by the street, as I chided him gently, “We don’t poop on people’s lawns.”  The use of “we” began to gnaw at me, until I’d pieced through it. 

“We don’t poop on people’s lawns.”  Well, I don’t.  And I don’t want him to.  This use of “we” would seem to mean, “I don’t want you to,” or “Don’t do it.”  I have the authority (if not the absolute power) to make commands like, “Don’t poop here,” but I didn’t say it that way.  I used “we”. 

“We don’t hit.”  This is something I have heard countless times in countless preschools and out of countless parents’/teachers’ mouths.  This use of “we” is similar to the first, in that the parent/teacher has almost complete authority to decide (and mandate) what is acceptable behavior. Somehow, the “we” softens the command. 

“How are we doing today?” Here is the classic, cloying yet condescending nurse, peeping in on you as you wake up from anesthesia after having your skull cracked open or your belly vivisected, asking you to comment on how “we” feel.  As in the other cases, it is clear here the nurse does not expect you to common on her own state; “we” plainly means “you”. 

The first two cases I can comfortably group together under one tier of a hierarchy about power.  In his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell examines the role ethnicity plays in airplane cockpit communications, and the crashes that happen (or can be avoided).  What he found was that if lower officers (e.g., flight engineer, first mate) tried to warn a superior officer (e.g., captain, pilot) of dangerous circumstances, they often hinted, or hedged their comments, rather than being direct and admitting that the pilot had made an error.  They said nonspecific things like, “We’re running out of fuel,” (as Gladwell points out, planes are usually running out of fuel as they prepare to land) or mitigated their observations by saying, “I think” or “We might,” or even went at it obliquely by saying, “The weather sure is nasty, eh?”  My instances of “we” for “You do it” would seem to be the opposite: a superior speaking to an inferior.

At least, I use my language to make myself seem superior to my dog.  However, he has me pretty well trained.  If I am in the office and he wants to come in, he scratches gently at the door, effectively knocking, and I immediately spring to action to open it for him.  If we are in the kitchen and it’s any time between 3:30 and 7pm, all he has to do is start barking incessantly, and I will serve his dinner without delay.  My spouse and I are programmed to walk him 3 times a day, and we even stoop to examine and pick up his shit, as if his leavings are some fecal oracle.  With my language, I try to repair our power rankings, though, apparently, I don’t want him to feel bad about it.

“Finley, get your arthritic ass off the neighbor’s lawn before I yank you to the curb!”  Of course, people may be watching.  You don’t speak to a companion animal that way.  He wouldn’t understand.  Not that he understands, “We don’t chase cats; they’re not in season,” either, but that one is for me. 

When it comes to correcting the behavior of young children, the projected “we” (meaning you) is also used.  I have of course observed many child care providers and parent making liberal use of direct commands and corrections with their children.  “Stop that right now.” “Don’t hit her.”  “Get off the wall.”  “Don’t touch that.”  “If you wander off, you’re gonna get took!” I wonder if the difference between, “Don’t touch that” and “We don’t touch that, it’s dirty” is cultural, based on socio-economic status, situational, or some combination thereof.  Again, though, as with the pets, we are “in charge” in some way – the superior officer – and we are giving commands.  We wish to mitigate the strength of our commands in a small way, to take the edge off being direct.  Perhaps we hope this will increase compliance.  I know as a preschool teacher I learned the indirect construction, “I can’t let you…” (jump from the top stair, come to lunch without washing your hands, hit another child, throw sand) as a way to increase compliance and stop sounding like such a meany.  It seemed to work, too.  Maybe the effectiveness was in the strangeness of the phrase itself.  Kids did not recognize, “I can’t let you throw sand,” as a reprimand, and it seemed to reduce their defiance.  Perhaps adults use “we” with the same hope – to seem less harsh, to increase the likelihood they’ll be obedient and to make the task of raising model human beings less odious.  In that case, as with the dog, our “power” never seems truly absolute.  Sure, we may set bedtimes, and offer absolute “no”s, but kids can keep on throwing sand (and dogs will poop wherever and whenever they want) until we take it away. 

To the third example, our saccharine nurse friend.  Arguably, she (or he), too, is in a position of power, albeit artificial and temporary.  Does the use of “we” take down the harshness, the clinical side of nursing?  Yet at the same time, does it hope to increase compliance?  “Did we take our meds today?”  “Do we want dinner now?”  “Did we do all the exercises the PT recommended?”  Maybe the nurse is trying to put herself on your side, so you’ll be more likely to try to please her.  She can hope you’ll be a good little patient, following directions, not demanding too much, just to make her life easier.  I think this third “we” is related to the first two, that it is an attempt by a “superior” to cut herself down one notch verbally, to forfeit one level of power so that you’ll be more comfortable and more compliant.  Unfortunately, due to the artificiality of the situation, most adults chafe at the patronizing construction and/or tone.  It’s ironic that a form intended to alleviate the disparity in power is often perceived as exactly the opposite – as a construction used with small children and animals. 

And we know how that makes us feel, don’t we?