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I am sure the nurse means this question as bright and breezy, perhaps inviting the response "We are (more likely "I am") fine, thank you." However, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is an element of condescension here, mirroring the fact that the nurse is up and bustling around, while the patient is lying passively in bed. What is actually going on in this question? Are there other circumstances in which someone can be addressed in the first person without any connotation of condescension?

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  • Compare this question on "how are we?" vs "how are you?"
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 13:29
  • Or this one, (Condescending, empathising or 'let us reason together' "we")
    – Conrado
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 13:38
  • Off topic, but - true story - a consultant was asked by a patient "How are you doctor?" replied "A lot better than you Mrs Smith" Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 14:08

2 Answers 2

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The use of “we” to indicate the singular has three forms, the first two of which refer to the first person singular:

The first, used by rulers dates back to at least the 13th century:

1854 W. M. Thackeray Rose & Ring xv [The herald]..began to read:—‘O Yes!..know all men by these presents, that we, Giglio, King of Paflagonia’ [etc.].

1987 M. Thatcher in H. Young One of Us (1990) xx. 491 We are in the fortunate position..of being..the senior person in power.

The second is even older. It is used to create an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the repetition of ‘I’.

1965 S. Lipschutz Outl. Theory & Probl. Gen. Topol. iv. 47 We assume the reader is familiar with the geometric representation of R by means of the points on a straight line.

2003 N.Y. Times 2 Mar. 11/4 The commander of American forces..has backup plans for moving American forces into Northern Iraq. ‘General Franks, as we speak, is looking at lots of options.’

The third version is the version in question:

OED

1 f. 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.

1702 J. Vanbrugh False Friend i. i. C 3 Well, old Acquaintance, we are going to be Married then?

1756 T. Gray Let. 21 Sept. in Corr. (1935) II. 481 We [sc. Chute, who had been ill] have been up a second time for two days in our Chair.

1973 G. Chapman et al. Monty Python's Flying Circus (1989) II. xxxvii. 199 Doctor Morning, Mr Henson... How are we today?

1992 B. Keenan Evil Cradling xiii. 178 The words that his mother had spoken to his father when his father got angry about something. ‘Now, now, we are getting very paddy today, aren't we John?’

Note the 1973 quote. This marks the point at which “we” is now being used as satire by recognising the blurring of the line that has already taken place between a “friendly or cheering address” and the condescending “mockingly or reproachfully” and overly familiar nature of such use.

It is probably a marker in cultural shift that recognises the annoyance felt and created by a formulaic device with more than a little transparent insincerity.

It also marks a change from an attitude of respecting professionals for their status to respecting people for their abilities fostered by a general feeling of equality and a general entitlement to respect.

The answer to the question of "When it is permissible to use this form?" is probably "Never."

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    Arguably there's an element of "tetchiness" in that final paragraph. Did we get out of the wrong side of the bed this morning? :) Actually, I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child, and I always hated it when a ward sister doing the morning rounds said "And how are we this morning?" Even at 7 years old, I wanted to say "Well, you're fine, but I'm not!" Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 13:52
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    @FumbleFingers A fine answer and a good comment to sympathise with. The tetchiness is completely understandable. The usage is based on a false commonality, a suggestion of condescension and an irritating usage to one side of the usual usage of “we”.
    – Anton
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 14:08
  • 1
    Well expressed on cultural shift and change from an attitude. Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 14:27
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    My intuition is that the plural pronoun served some kind of phatic function, and softening the intensity of the phrase in comparison to "you" or "I", which are more direct. However, nowadays the singular isn't considered rude, so I'd mirror Greybeard's advice to not use it. Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 22:21
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    In "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side" by Agatha Christie published in 1962, miss Marple finds miss Knight, her nurse, infuriating, because she is treating her "as slightly mentally afflicted children". An example of such treatment given was using first person "we" as in the OP. It seems this transition might have started happening some time before 1973. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 1:24
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Sharing a different perspective. We nurses, generally and one would hope, have a sense of empathy for those to whom we provide care. When the hypothetical nurse in this question asks about "we", I feel that sense of empathy communicated rather than condescension. "We" are working together for your progress towards a better state of health, not you alone. If "you" are not feeling well, then "we" are not feeling well, which honestly does affect how I feel.

From an organizational perspective, employees work as a team towards common goals. I might perform some work, write a policy, research some knowledge for a project, etc. But I feel unease at taking implied credit knowing that all of the work is a team effort so I say "we" quite often, even when referring to my portion of the effort. My belief is that team cohesion is strengthened when we use inclusive terms.

Additionally, "we" implies authority greater than "I". As one who frequently must remind others of organizational policy and state and federal regulations, I say "we" and "our" to make clear that these are not my personal rules, rather my reminder is backed up by the organization or even the federal government. Also implied is, again, inclusivity in that "we" are held to such policy and regulation, not just the individual to whom the reminder is directed.

Reading the question and answers was enlightening of the differing perceptions. Perhaps my career and work culture contribute to my perception of the question, and apparently it is not as general a perception as I had thought. Communication is a wonderful tool for understanding cultural differences.

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    We agree with this answer!
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 12:57
  • I do think patients tend to feel very differently about "we" meaning "my colleagues and I" versus "we" meaning "you, the patient, and I"!
    – Jasmijn
    Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 20:39
  • This is precisely it. The patient's health is a concern of asker and the askee; personal on the part of the patient and professional on the part of the nurse or doctor. If the answer is "great!", then both people will appreciate it. As such, this is a we question, not a you question.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 6:24
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    IMO, it's not appropriate if asking about feelings. I don't care how empathetic you are, and you are certainly witnessing more suffering than I ever hope to see, but when I was in the ER with a kidney stone, I felt like crap. If you felt like I did, you wouldn't have been working that night.
    – chepner
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 17:48
  • @chepner - Exactly - empathy does not imply feeling exactly the same, otherwise nurses and physicians would not be able to do their jobs. Empathy, instead, provides the patient with a strong advocate for their needs; I feel (to a much less extent, but there none-the-less) your pain, so I ask the physician for pain medicine, and more if not effective enough. I anticipate your needs when your loved one dies, so I ask for chaplain and social services support. We experience your (muted) feelings so we can address your needs. But we often need to query those feelings as human response is variable. Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 2:53

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