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We Are Not Amused: Problems with the First Person Plural 

September 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Today I’m writing more about language. ​I’ve been thinking about adults who say “we” when talking to or about clients or children with disabilities, as well as children in general. 

I want to acknowledge that different people have very different levels of education, English language fluency, and ability to monitor their own speech. I sometimes get frustrated with activists who seem convinced that you can’t fight for social justice without using exactly the right language– language that is unfamiliar to most people.

I am a very language-oriented person, and it is difficult for me to write simply (for example, the first sentence of this post was originally “Continuing with my prior theme of dissecting language…”). I’m trying to become more accessible, since my natural writing style is hard for many people to read and understand.

Back to the topic.

There is a tendency for adults working with the disabled to use unnecessary plurals: that is, to say “we” when talking about something the other person is doing. I’ve seen some understandably hostile reactions to this in the advocacy community. But I also realized that I do it sometimes. So I started trying to figure out when and why. 

People usually say “we” to small children, disabled or not. Sometimes it really is a plural, and sometimes not. I think it’s hard to see the difference with babies, because the adults do almost everything for them or with them. “We’re going you upstairs to change your diaper” definitely involves both parties. And sometimes the adult is really just talking to themselves. “Are we having a cranky day?” isn’t a question most babies will answer.  

Other times, it’s like the parent is talking for the baby. “We need a nap” really means “The baby needs a nap” (although I bet Mom would like one, too!). I think this way of speaking makes people angry when a non-disabled person is speaking for a disabled person. Autistic rights activists get particularly upset about phrases like “We’re having a bad day,” when the speaker really means that a child (or even worse, a disabled adult) is having a bad day. Of course, it’s often true that if a person is having a rough day, their caregiver is struggling as well. 

I’ve used “We’re having a bad day” when talking about my disabled clients, especially if they are present, and I thought about why. One reason is because saying “He/She is having a bad day” sounds a little bit to me like I am blaming that person, when the truth is that I’ve probably made some mistakes that contributed to their bad day. It also sounds like I am totally uninvolved, and that feels impolite too. “We” feels more inclusive. Talking about someone in front of them is different than talking about you and that person. It’s usually rude to say “S/He’s going to the beach” in front of that person, but it’s perfectly fine to tell someone “We are going to the beach.” Really, though, it would be best to say something like “Today has been hard on everyone,” or “I think she’s had a lot of frustration today,” or “He seems upset.” I can’t know exactly what they are thinking or feeling; I can only guess.

Sometimes”we” really means “we.” “We are going to pick up your toys,” can mean “You and I will pick up the toys together,” and that’s just fine. 

What really bugs me is when someone, usually a professional, says “We’re going to pick up our toys now,” or “We need to put away our shoes,” or “We need to finish our lunch,” or “We need to earn three more tokens,” when they really mean “you” in all those cases.  We don’t talk that way with typically developing children, even when we are talking about doing something together. We say “I’ll help you pick up your toys,” or “You need to eat your lunch,” or maybe “Let’s put away your shoes.”

Using “we” and “our” when you mean “you” and “your” is infantilizing. I remember, as a fourth grader, our entire class being horribly offended when a substitute teacher (who usually taught kindergarten) said “Let’s all follow Mrs. Spitzer to the cafeteria now!” She was guilty of referring to herself in the third person (of course, I have changed the name) as well as addressing us in the first person plural. 

Now, sometimes people do use “we” in instructions. If you watch cooking shows, you’ll hear things like “Now we’re going to put our cake in the oven” or “We need to cut all these vegetables up really small, because we want them to cook quickly.” And usually the speaker is giving a demonstration at the same time. This can work in a classroom or therapy session, as in “We can use a graph to show this trend” or “We can mix red and blue paint to make purple.” At least, it works as long as the teacher isn’t using that awful sing-songy baby voice…

The other way that it’s sometimes OK to use “we” is to make a general statement. When adults tell children, “We cover our mouths when we sneeze” or, “We need to share with our friends,” they mean “I do this and so should you” or “This is what people are supposed to do.” Making a general statement can take the sting out of being corrected. I have a client with Down Syndrome who reacts badly when confronted directly but is happy to modify her behavior when I phrase it as a general rule, such as “Young ladies say excuse me when they burp” or “Remember, we always say thank you for gifts.” But this method, too, needs to be done respectfully. 

As usual, my underlying message is about the need for respect. A good general rule is: If you wouldn’t say it to a non-disabled person, don’t say it to a disabled person. But that’s easier said than done. It’s hard, too, to speak in an age-appropriate way with someone who doesn’t understand the things a typically developing person their age understands. Remember that what goes around comes around: you can’t teach someone to be respectful unless you are respectful to them.