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The Problem with "We"

How often do you hear someone use the word "we" to refer to a group which you do or do not feel a part of? It occurs frequently for me. So today, I want to look at the ways in which the word “we” gets used and misused. It seems that “we" tend to use “we" as if “we" know who “we” is referring to when “we” speak of “we.”

While I know I am not the only person to note that this is problematic, I have not seen very many suggestions for how to address the problem. In order to bring more precision to our language, I would like to invite anyone reading this post to offer their thoughts regarding alternatives to the word “we” and see if it will help us to think and communicate more effectively.

In Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Tyson Yunkaporta notes that Aboriginal culture in Australia has the term “us-two” which refers to two people who may be doing most anything together. That feels a lot like “we” when referring to two people who make up a set.

I like "us-two" because it feels more specific and more inclusive than our word “we” - but that's just my personal take on it.

In particular, the use of "us-two" or, for more accuracy, when referring to larger groups, "us-here" or "us-X" provides a way to include others that gets beyond the fuzziness of “we” while offering more specificity. For example, "us-subscribers to Ken's blog" refers to the specific set of people who are subscribed to my blog, while "us-here reading this post" further selects for those who are actually reading this post. Likewise, “us-here-on-this-call” would specify only the people on a given call which may be a subset of people subscribed to a mailing list announcing the calls.

By adopting an “Us-X” mode of specifying who is and is not included as our referent, we can hope to clarify our language and possibly reduce the confusion that flows when the word “we” is used generically to refer to various groups of people where those referenced may or may not feel themselves to be part of the “we” being referenced.

For example, "Us-humans" points to "The Grand We" of our whole species – which we all recognize as a massive generalization to which only a few attributes can be properly applied. OTOH, “us-global northerners” or “us-western educated people” selects out those who fit into those categories and allows us to make assessments and assertions about those sets of people. (Wow! Who knew that those lessons from high school math on set theory would finally pay off🤣)

Something very interesting comes into focus when there are “we”s where a personal connection to the set is not part of the set. I can be part of “us-allies for POC” or “us-allies for women” but as a heterosexual white male I can’t be part of “us-women” or “us-POC.” The world of transgendered people adds multiple shades of meaning that will be challenging to work through and which may offer us some more precise language that could help us be clearer when we are speaking with one another. Likewise, I am personally unlikely to use the term “us-indigenous* folks”, since I don’t meet the criteria that Tyson lays out in Sand Talk to be considered indigenous. However, there may well be people reading this who can legitimately make that claim.

This class of distinctions might help by ensuring that white males (and others, but it’s almost always white males) don’t place themselves in sets where they don’t belong and make claims about those sets. This would have the effect of granting more legitimacy to the people in a specific set since only they can legitimately speak as a member of that set.

Of course, this approach will likely engender resistance and other problems that I can't determine at the moment. I am not sure how this will play out since this is my first attempt at thinking it through. By no means do I expect or wish to be the authority on the topic. I’m just putting out a provocative suggestion that “us-reading this blog post” play with this kind of language/thinking process and see what happens.

So, here is my invitation to you: play with this, figure out where it does and does not apply, refine it, suggest new forms, and let us experiment with this for a while and see how it affects our ability to converse in ways that provide more clarity and stimulate higher resolution thinking. Maybe you already have a phrase that will be more applicable than “we.” If so, please share it!

The next time someone uses a fuzzy “we” in their speaking we can request that they state their “we” as an “us-X” - should be interesting to see what that does to our individual and collective thinking!

Who’s in? Yes, I am looking for you to join me by saying oui!😉

*“For the purposes of the thought experiments in this book, an indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of a life lived sustainably on a land base, as part of that land base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances.”

~ Tyson Yunkaporta – Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World


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