Monday, April 24, 2017

Which We is the Destination?

I was reading this article on Public Libraries Online, The Destination is "We" (because I'm clearly not great at separating work from leisure, if you couldn't tell from my ever expanding list of monthly reads since I moved up into my not-quite-librarian post), when I was reminded of The Secret Life of Pronouns. More specifically, chapter 7, The Language of Status, Power, and Leadership, part of which discusses I-you-we word usage and what they signify. The PLO article related an incident where an attempt at leadership went horribly awry, and the article author's supervisor let him know where he had failed:
  1. Room setup placed him at the leader spot, conveying a deafness to other ideas
  2. Not letting other people speak, by spilling over with all the ideas before they could even think about solutions to existing issues
  3. And then finally, "you probably used 'I' a dozen times. A good leader recognizes that the destination is 'we'"
#3 is where my interest piqued. Not because I disagreed with it, so much as I remembered that in The Secret Life of Pronouns, Pennebaker highlighted the different facets lying hidden in "we".
On the surface, we-words sound warm and fuzzy and should, in theory, be related to feelings of group solidarity. The problem is that, in conversations with others, the word we is really at least five different words (p.175)
Sneaky pronoun, that "we". The 5 faces of "we" as identified by Pennebaker are (and I'll paraphrase below):
  1. The you-and-I we, where everyone is included in the group, which sounds pretty ideal, but can lead to issues when those involved don't identify each other (or themselves) as belonging to the group.
  2. The my-friends-and-not-you we is pretty self-explanatory.
  3. The we-as-you we: I say "we"; I mean "you"
  4. The we-as-I we, aka the royal we, has the advantage of gathering support from people who may or may not exist, or fall back upon the untouchable institution, with this "we" umbrella.
  5. The every-like-minded-person-on-earth we, which is (arguably) the worst - who is this "we", even? This also, like #4, has the sneaky advantage of gathering support from people, who less likely than not, might exist. (I say less likely only because it's a type of person that this draws support from, and it's less likely that there will be many of such prototypes that exist to agree with whoever's saying whatever they're saying.)
 Furthermore, "those higher in status use first-person plural pronouns (we, us our) at much higher rates than those lower in status" (p.174, emphasis in original), which makes sense even if you just think about those five "we"s listed above, but I wonder whether the listeners realize that speakers who use "we" more often are positing themselves as being higher in status than themselves? All this to say that I think some qualifying is in order here when the author says "the destination is "we"": which "we" are we talking about as the destination, and which "we" do we use to get there?*

*I should say that it's pretty obvious the destination is #1 we. It's just that #1 we doesn't necessarily have to be the vehicle that transports those involved to the destination.

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