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When “we” is “you”

Q: It bothers me to be addressed by a clerk or server as “we” instead of “you.” For example, “Are we enjoying our meal?” or “Are we ready to check out?” I find this a putdown. It reminds me of how some people speak to a child. I know the server means no offense, but I am bothered. Am I unreasonable? Is this usage new? I can’t find it on your blog.

A: We’ve written about this usage, but it’s at the end of a post about the various singular uses of the pronoun “we.” Your question gives us a chance to expand on the subject.

You’re not the only person bothered by this. Anthony Bourdain, the chef, author, and TV personality, was asked a few months ago about things he loves and hates. Among the hates: Servers who say, “How are we enjoying our food?” His response: “Leave me alone.”

We find the usage annoying too, though it’s far from new. The pronoun “we” has been used for “you” since the early 1700s—confidentially, humorously, cheerfully, amiably, mockingly, or reproachfully, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The False Friend, a 1702 comedy by the English dramatist John Vanbrugh. “Don John: ‘Well, old acquaintance, we are going to be married then? ’Tis resolved: ha!’ / Don Pedro: ‘So says my star.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage refers to two of the most common versions of the usage as “the kindergarten we (We won’t lose our mittens, will we?)” and “the hospital we (How are we feeling this morning?).” Merriam-Webster’s attributes the two terms to the Writer’s Guide and Index to English (1972), by Porter G. Perrin and Wilma R. Ebbitt.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, don’t use those terms, but they give examples of the medical usage (“How are we feeling feeling this morning? Have we taken our medicine?”) and the schoolhouse usage (“teacher to pupil: We need to practice our scales”).

The Cambridge Grammar notes that the usage “runs the risk of being construed as patronising,” and is sometimes intended “to convey mockery,” as in “Oh, dear, we are a bit cranky this morning, aren’t we?”

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a “playful use of this convention” in response to an annoying use of it.

We’ve expanded the citation, from Vacant Possession, a 1986 novel by Hilary Mantel:

“ ‘Don’t you wear a bra?’ she said. Muriel shook her head. The nurse smiled. ‘We don’t want to droop, do we?’

“ ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about,’ Muriel said. ‘Our head hurts.’ ”

Burchfield also has citations for a hairdresser speaking to a customer (“Do we have the hair parted on the left as usual, sir?”) and for an army officer addressing a recruit (“Not quite professional soldier material, are we?”)

Sidney Greenbaum notes in the The Oxford English Grammar that “we” and “us” are sometimes used in place of “I” or “me” in “situations of unequal relationship; for example, a doctor or dentist speaking to a patient or a teacher speaking to a student. The intention is to display a friendly tone, although it is increasingly regarded by some as patronizing.”

Greenbaum gives several examples of the usage, including these: “Well we’ll just check your blood pressure” … “Let’s have a look at your throat just now.”

Is it unreasonable for you to be bothered when clerks and servers use “we” instead of “you”?

No, but there’s not much you can do about it other than to respond rudely to someone’s misguided attempt at friendliness.

As we’ve said, the usage has been around for quite a while in one form or another. And it’s probably here to stay.

We’ll end with an OED example from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “ ‘Well, my dear ma’am, and how are we?’ inquired [Doctor] Wosky in a soothing tone.”

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