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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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Nosism (Wikipedia)

The patronizing we (also known as the kindergarten or preschool we) is sometimes used in addressing instead of you, suggesting that the addressee is not alone in their situation such as "We won't lose our mittens today." This usage can carry condescending, ironic, praising, or other connotations, depending on intonation. "Aren't we looking cute today?"

The hospital we is sometimes employed by healthcare workers when addressing their patients; for example, "How are we feeling today?"

In your case I would say the "patronizing we" used to include the server in the group at the table (or the table in the "family" of the restaurant)

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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
  • The patronizing character of this usage makes it rather puzzling what could possibly be intended by the servers in restaurants when they use it (as observed by the OP).
    – jsw29
    yesterday
  • @jsw29 I updated the answer
    – mplungjan
    17 hours ago
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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
  • I don't think that the use of we described in the second and the third paragraph of this answer is the same as in the OP's restaurant example. While it is only the hair on the son's head, and not on the mother, that will be cut, the mother is involved in the transaction, in that she has booked it, driven the son to the appointment, and will pay for it. There is thus way in which both the son and the mother, together, can be regarded as the clients of the barber; looking at the matter that way makes the we in such cases a literal we (ordinary first-person plural).
    – jsw29
    yesterday

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