It is almost a knee jerk reaction. I hear a politician tell us “I need you to…” or “I will be asking for this in my budget…” and I’ve already had a gut reaction to the start of the sentence, such that I really don’t hear what comes after that. I imagine myself on that podium, saying that sentence. And I realize that the word I would be so hard for me to utter. In writing, yes, I can use it. But in speaking? To a group? No, I just sticks in my throat. But why?
Linguistically, there is the use of the royal “we”. First, made famous by Queen Victoria when a vulgar joke was told in her presence. When she replied, “we are not amused”, she “clearly intended to speak on behalf of the other ladies whom she knew were equally offended.” Later, used by royalty to note the collective body of a politically organized nation – most commonly used as a term of separation – them and those – we and they – the intelligentsia and the peasants.
The use of pronouns such as I and we are called functional words. When used by politicians, the choice can mean the difference between claiming authority and creating community.
There are even studies done about one’s mental state and the use of these functional words. More people who are suffering from depression use I as opposed to we or they. Kind of fascinating.
Having spent almost an entire career in the world of nonprofits, I learned quickly that the use of we was, indeed, to build community. And not at all spoken like the “royal we”. What seemed so odd, at first, became rote. “We hope you will…we ask you…we thank you.” Sometimes I felt almost like turning around to see who else was standing there with me. Never the bolder use of I. Never as though the individual, the staff member, even existed, except as a title of function, certainly not a separate person. What mattered was the greater good, the cause.
“I would like you to donate a major gift towards research.” Imagine! “I would like you to?” “We need you to donate a major gift towards research.” OK, but who is the we? The we is you – and me – and collectively, all of us.
So, staff were in the background, writing the words, designing the photo opp, poised with conductor’s baton, or wind up key, if you will. It was an adjustment – to deny one’s self – personality – personae – to become invisible. But soon I came to understand the benefit of this group-being. So, for 20 years I was on behalf of and quite content in that role. It was deemed to be a best practice of success for a nonprofit.
Today, the role of staff in a nonprofit is quite different. Today the staff member is often front and center. Someone whose life has never been touched by the disease du jour is speaking at a podium about the tragedies of some type of cancer they’ve never had. Often, the volunteers or ‘survivors’ are right there, and willing to speak, but they are not invited to do so. It is the staff member’s job now. One they may truly love and be dedicated to. But one with distance built all around it. Between community – and cause.
All this goes through my mind when I hear the word I spoken by an elected official, over and over again. What is the purpose? It must be to reinforce one’s role of power, surely not to build a sense of community – not to sing kumbaya with the people at all.
I think about the organization I worked for and how the tagline, or slogan, it used, changed over the years, reflecting part of this new word order. “We’re fighting for your life.” Outwardly focused. Inclusive. Involving. Engaging. “I’M not fighting for your life. YOU are not fighting…WE are fighting.” Kumbaya. Exponential engagement!
Today, that slogan has morphed to several others, with degrees of warm and fuzzy. “Learn and Live” (don’t listen to me and you’ll find out for yourself); “Your Life is in Your Hands” (it’s up to you, do what you want, you know what you need to do)’ and, today, “Life is Why”. (we’re tired of giving you all the reasons why – you should know why by now).
We have made today’s politicians into caricatures of themselves. The media has done that. And we expect it now. We tweet about the color of the Governor’s jacket and how her hair looked on any one day. Our obsessiveness would lead one to believe that we have relegated them to use the “royal we”, yet we have created a new level beyond that. Today politicians ask us to do things, to support things, in first person. I need you to do this. There is leadership in that, and a sense of authority, but I suggest there is no sense of community or coalition building.
If I were the speech writer I would reserve the authoritarian use of “I” for select moments of crisis. Rather, I would bring back the royal we, the friendlier we. For, “it’s all in our backyard”, isn’t it? It’s not your backyard, or my backyard, it’s ours. How might we all better respond if we brought back the use of the plural personal pronoun? Just as your mother saved the use of your middle name for “those times” when obedience meant right now, and no discussion, politicians might command a more communal sense of engagement with the use of we, forgoing the assertive first person singular pronoun for crisis and woe, for that time when “we are not amused”.