Communication, Language, Relationships

The Power and Peril of the “Universal We”

[I know. I KNOW. I have been trying to complete and publish something for *MONTHS* and failing. Depression is finally inching its way up and out at least. That’s been the lion’s share of the challenge, paired with ongoing health issues, and just trying to balance all of this with both work AND a spectacular kind of renaissance in my personal life. Now if cancer would just stop robbing me of people I love, that would be just dandy, thanks…]

Noting recurring themes in therapy is often what drives the content for these posts, and lately there has been a couple of big thematic topics cropping up. One of them is observing clients of all genders in relational conversations using something I’ve come to label the “Universal We”. Women in particular are raised in a social context that programs us to consider others more than we consider ourselves; our traditional roles as nurturers and care-givers primes us for this behaviour even when it doesn’t come with the traditional baggage of being homemakers and staty-at-home parents to the sacrificial detriment of our own dreams and desires.

Women have been conditioned for I-don’t-even-know-how-long to employ “softened language”, which takes myriad forms even in modern discussions. We preface our own ideas with, “I think,” “What do you think about,” “I believe,” or “How do you feel about.” For women to be as direct and upfront in what they want, need, intend, or desire, is to be seen as aggressive, even masculine. In corporate culture, forthright women on one hand were seen as being more likely to be noticed for potential recognition and promotion, and on the otherhand reviled for not being soft and collaborative enough. Men in the corporate world don’t generally get punished for being direct; women, on the other hand, get labelled as “bossy” or “bitchy” when they start sentences with, “I want” or “I need”.

This plays out in intimate and familial relational dynamics in very interesting ways as well. When couples in particular come in with “working on our communications” as the presenting issue, these patterns are among the first I start listening for. I also listen for the presence of “We-isms”, those intentionally-inclusive pronouns that carry a weighty IMPLICIT expectation.

When people use the “Universal We,” something very specific is happening in default social programming. The speaker is offering an implicity unity-of-purpose between the parties involved. “We need to set some ground rules around Little Jamie’s bed-time schedule,” “we should make plans for the summer vacation week,” “we really need to sit down and talk about last night’s argument” — these are all examples of ways in which the speaker is putting an implied invitation to discussion in front of a partner. The problem, however, is the that suggestion following the “we” language, *IS*, in fact, a universally-agreed-upon thing (value, intention, plan, whatever).

In truth, however, what’s generally underneath such language is a core need or want on the speaker’s part, either something the speaker wants for themselves, or something the speaker wants to request specifically of the listener. “I want to set some ground rules with you…,” “Do you have time right now to make some plans for summer vacation?,” “I really need to sit down and talk with you about what happened last night.” Such direct statements and explicit invitations are challenging in a culture that has indoctrinated us with the belief that women are meant to be soft and enticing where appropriate, yielding where required. Being direct feels like we are being threatening, and many women fear what happens when they put themselves and their own desires right up front in the clear to been unequivocably seen. To be explicit is to court rejection, and that’s untenable. So we interject the implied “we” in the belief that the softer inclusive language will magically provoke our partners into correctly interpreting our request as something that involves their active participation.

Unfortunately, what I see happening in relational (and often familial) dynamics more often than not, is the speaker is trying to enlist the partner into something that might represent a shift in their usual dynamics, either by engaging in a more collaborative practice than usual, or wanting the *partner* to take on responsibility, for something that has likely traditionally fallen on the speaker to do. And what I see play out is the listener translating the universal “we” as a status quo expectation; they may hear the “we” but the implicit received message is, “Oh, [Speaker] will take care of this; they always do”. So while Speaker says “we” meaning collaborative unity or the You-the-Partner, the listener is translating the vocabulary as we-means-Speaker-because-it-has-always-been-that-way. By the time such couples get to me, the one who most commonly brings up the universal we is frustrated beyond belief by their partner’s perceived lack of engagement, while the receiving partner is baffled by having never received an explicit request or suggestion aimed specifically at THEM personally.

The clarity of communication around needs, want, and related expectations can, and frequently does, get utterly lost in something as simply as pronoun usage. Softened language is endemic in all kinds of relational dynamics, and is a line of contention in corporate dynamics. John Gottman uses the principle of the “soft startup” as a way of easing into potentially challenging topics with a partner, and while this idea has definite value (especially as a practitioner of non-violent communications), it remains problematic from a feminist and feminine agency perspective if it encourages the practice of misdirecting the intensity or urgency of the needs we’re trying to address. Years ago, a very good friend of mine encountered something similar in her partner dynamics that became a clear illustration of the problems inherent in gender-biased communication dynamics. In the course of preparing dinner for her husband and child, she realized she was out of some critical ingredient, so she asked her partner, “Do you want to tgo to the store for [X]?” To which her partner quite truthfully responded, “No.”

My friend, like many of us, was raised in a culture of the “soft ask”, another deflective tool that undermines the clarity of our communications by implying or infering rather than being a clear and explicit statement or request of our own need. Instead of saying, “I need [X], could you please go to the store for me?”, the implicit ask tries to get the listener onside with making our need their need or want, so of COURSE they’ll want to go to the store.

Yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah… except when that runs afoul of someone who does NOT want to go to the store. Or sit down and debrief the most recent argument. Or make time to plan the summer vacation. Or whatever the implicit ask is trying to get them onside with.

And yet women in particular do this to ourselves ALL THE TIME. As a therapist, I’m only starting to catch *myself* when I use universal we-isms with my clients. It’s actually extremely problematic for therapists and any professional in a power dynamic with their clients, because while there are some potential points in which we share experiences, perspectives, feelings with our clients, the universal we isn’t always a great tool for joining them in a therapeutic alliance. I suspect most of us do it to normalize the client’s experience somehow, but I’m also aware that the disproportionate majority of therapists are WOMEN, so now I’m completely suspicious of how WE (delibate usage there) are applying that pronoun.

So what do I do with this once I observe its persistent presence in the room?

First of all, I call attention to it, and explore the speaker’s awareness of the pattern. We then clarify the intentions behind the usage. More often than not, it’s an intent to put a request for something the speaker wants or needs directly onto the listener. Sometimes the speaker is aware of a fear of provoking conflict or rejection, but more often than not it’s simply a learned pattern (as with my friend, this was just the way women in her family in particular had always operated, and to some extent the same pattern was reinforced in her corporate experiences as well). Then we work on deliberately correcting occurences of the pattern in therapeutic conversations, encouraging a movement from the universal we to the “clarified I”. (This is another application of the principle moving from an external locus of control to an internal one, but that one may take a whole ‘nuther post to explain.) We observe the new pattern in the field for a while and see what shifts in partner engagement and/or expectations, and we can adjust the communications around intent and expectation from there.

The dynamic of how we present our ideas and needs in relationship is obscured by strong traditions around these heavily-gendered models, and for many women and non-binary folks, there is an implied safety in assuming we can onside our supporters with inclusive language and implicit, invitational expressions. but we also have to balance out the likelihood of the implied communications going awry on the receiver’s end for reasons we may not be able to see or work around without challenging the receiver’s internal filters, an act that can seem too close to provocation, aggression, threat of conflict and rejection.

Sometimes the neutral third party of the therapist is a key component in shifting dynamics for partners afraid of taking up space in relationships, and sometimes really all we as allies need to do is hold up the observational mirror of to the behaviours and reflect what we’re seeing for clarification purposes. After that, we can unravel and reknit the intentions into something far clearer, stronger (without being aggressive), and more directly engaging.

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