We are all royalty now — at least, based on our usage of the “royal we,” we all seem to think so. We use it when we’re the people in power and we have to apologize, or when we want to seem more humble.
When I hear people like Bernie Sanders or the CEO of United Airways defer personal responsibility by telling the masses that “we” will do better, it feels disingenuous. I’m not saying they necessarily realize they’re being evasive, but it’s always going to be easier to diffuse personal responsibility — because it always starts at the top — by diluting the first person with the word “we.
Because come on, there is no “we” when you’re talking about yourself — just “I.” Yet we’re living in an age when an increasing number of powerful people express themselves in the majestic plural. And sure, you could argue that we are all made up of millions of atoms, but then I would argue that the atoms that make you are inferior to the ones that make me, buddy.
According to The Harvard Business Review, the royal “we” has a long history.
“Many attribute its first usage to King Henry II, who in 1169 used it to imply he was speaking for both himself, and for God. Over time, leaders began to use it to imply them and their constituents (a distinction that got a little blurry when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed ‘we have become a grandmother’ and got a significant amount of chastisement). But beyond using the plural pronoun to indicate that you speak on behalf of others (or a deity), it turns out that using ‘we’ could also mean you’re more considerate of others and possibly even a better leader.”
In other words, what began as an indication of self-appointed ties to divinity (a more sincere, if still utterly bullshit usage) has now transformed into a mechanism to help those seeking forgiveness to appear more relatable and more “a part of our team.”
I should also note that in the same HBR article, the writer suggests that using “we” when you really mean “I” is actually a positive way to communicate with people who are clearly at a subordinate level, arguing that it could help “shift your perspective from self-focused to others-focused, making you more aware of other’s needs.”
I disagree — only a coward groups himself together with some imaginary self-serving faction to saturate their personal guilt. I’m not alone: James Walpole, a writer for the Foundation for Economic Education, argues that saying “we” is a poor substitute for both teamwork and personal responsibility, for the same reason. “When ‘we’ should be acting, you individually don’t have to bear the responsibility,” writes Walpole. His advice, then, for communicating with your subordinates, constituents or team, is to change the substance of your words, rather than manipulate your pronouns. “If you can’t communicate team spirit without using ‘we,’ then you have a problem,” he explains. “You shouldn’t have to change the language to manipulate reality. Redeem the language of ‘I’ and ‘you’ by changing your tone, intent and actions in the important work of communicating with your team and colleagues.”
Even the Quora community has noticed the proliferation of “we” amongst its users. “Why do so many people on Quora say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’?” asks one, to which another posits that it helps “pass the buck to unknown ‘we’ who can’t be held responsible.”
To that end, New York Times writer Ben Zimmer argues that the inclusive “we” is intended to establish “a bond of empathy or common understanding between the speaker and the receiver of a message,” but that it’s not an effective approach. “Writers rely on it to establish rapport with readers, and teachers with students (‘as we shall see’),” he writes. “But this is not always a welcome rhetorical move, especially when it comes across as pedantic or condescending. At worst, it can recall the we of caregivers for the very young and very old: ‘How are we feeling today?’”
All of which is to say that speaking in the third person is almost never an honest referendum of self-awareness. And because of it, we’re all being gaslit.