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I often hear people saying phrases of the type "How are we doing over here?" by servers at restaurants, for example. Obviously they mean "How are you (plural) doing?" Where does this type of usage of "we" come from? Is this pronoun misuse a regional thing? Has it entered mainstream American English? Am I wrong in thinking that it is incorrect?

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    I invariably respond to the overly cutesy and patronizingly familiar question "How are we today?" with "Not bad. And how are we?"
    – Robusto
    Mar 25, 2011 at 21:57
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    Where did I see somebody call this the "nurse we"?
    – Marthaª
    Mar 25, 2011 at 21:59
  • @Robusto: I may steal that.
    – MrHen
    Mar 25, 2011 at 22:09
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    N.B. The phenomenon occurs in other languages-- I don't see a reason to assume it's restricted to a specific dialect of English. Mar 26, 2011 at 3:37
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    Indeed, it also happens in Spanish
    – leonbloy
    Nov 23, 2013 at 17:46

2 Answers 2

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We

The patronizing "we"

The patronizing we is used sometimes in place of "you" to address a second party, hinting a facetious assurance that the one asked is not alone in his situation, that "I am with you, we are in this together". A doctor may ask a patient: And how are we feeling today? This usage is emotionally non-neutral and usually bears a condescending, ironic, praising, or some other flavor, depending on intonation: "Aren't we looking cute?"

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    Yeah, I suppose it's the "patronizing we" as mentioned in that article, though I doubt that every time it's used, it's meant in a patronizing tone (though I admit it comes across that way).
    – Jacob
    Mar 25, 2011 at 21:52
  • I agree. Added clarification
    – mplungjan
    Oct 14, 2020 at 15:27
  • Ok. Noted. Still weird to get voted down at el&u
    – mplungjan
    Oct 15, 2020 at 4:07
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This use of "we" that actually excludes the "I" can also refer to a third party and exclude the "you." It is often empathetic and participatory in this case as well.

You're in the vet's waiting room with your cat and you say to the dog owner seated next to you. "We're having our nails trimmed today." The "we" does not include you, the dog owner, and the cat owner is not being patronizing (and is definitely not having a manicure).

The same holds for a mom and her son at the barber shop who says: "We're getting our first grown-up haircut today."

For me it's a type of "exclusive we" — perhaps an "empathetic we," even if the surface empathy can be insincere, ironic, facetious, or patronizing. It's harder to make a "patronizing we" cover usages that are clearly well-intentioned, sympathetic, or intended to calm someone.

This Wiki page does not mention a "patronizing we" or a "dictatorial we," but rather a "second-person we" (And how are we feeling today?). However, we'd then have to add a "third-person we" as well to cover my examples. A term for the phenomenon should IMO reflect what's being done grammatically (the first person is excluded and either a "you" is being addressed or a third party (present or not) is being referred to) rather than they way it's used (tone of voice, choice of words, implication, intent, etc.).

I do not see this usage of we in the OED, but only

Used confidentially or humorously to mean the person or persons addressed, with whose interests the speaker thus identifies himself or herself (esp. by a doctor in friendly or cheering address to a patient); also used mockingly or reproachfully by a parent, intimate friend, etc.

Well, Jane, and how are we this morning?

This does not cover the above examples of the cat owner talking to the dog owner or the mother with her son talking to the barber. Neither we means the person addressed.

(See also "The Opposite of the Royal We")

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  • A good (and in the spirit of ELU, valid) measured broadening of the question. I expect that OED has a sense for 'patronising' that means 'avuncular', with little implication of condesension, but this would be swamped by the usual sense. There is an acceptable way of talking about/with young children (and dogs) that becomes demeaning as in the case of children they mature. 'Kiddyspeak we' doesn't sound good. // There's also the fact that using 'we' for 'you' can sound more friendly, less abrupt/distancing, if used carefully. Aug 21, 2021 at 11:37

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