What do you mean, ‘we’?

In couple-speak, this convenient pronoun isn’t quite as cozy as it sounds

By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2010

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Here’s a question for anyone who’s part of a couple, or who has ever been part of a couple. In the following sentences, does the word “we’’ suggest that the activity will be done jointly? “We should really remember to call the roofer tomorrow.’’ “We should take out the trash.’’

If you answered “yes,’’ please give me a call. I’ve got some chores “we’’ can do together.

“We’’ has been on my mind because my husband and I bought a house recently, and the purchase has led to a “to do’’ list so long it threatens to outlive us. It has also led to an uptick in the use of the word “we.’’

But not in any romantic way. Instead, “we’’ has turned into an order. It’s morphed from the first person plural into the command form of the second person singular.

My husband and I - “we’’ - have lots of company. With Valentine’s Day already looming on the holiday calendar, Bostonians confess to using the “we’’ word not to convey oneness with their partners as in “we’re renewing our vows’’ or “we’re planning a trip’’ but to boss each other around.

“I do it all the time,’’ said Nancy Teumer of Brookline. She imitated herself: “We need to rake the leaves.’’ “We need to get the gutters cleaned.’’ If her husband of 27 years doesn’t take the hint, she gets more explicit. “In case you’re wondering,’’ she tells him, “that was the royal we.’’

Sometimes those on the short end of “we’’ do as they’re told without getting into grammatical distinctions. But Yaw Owusu, a software consultant from Allston, said he interrogated his girl-friend about the true meaning of “we’’ after she had used it in reference to doing the dishes before friends came over for dinner.

“By ‘we,’ do you mean me or you?’’ he inquired.

Some “we’’-ers don’t realize they’re doing it, or so they claim. But writer A.J. Jacobs had a moment of clarity as he was writing about trying to be the perfect husband.

“My friend Albert e-mails,’’ Jacobs writes in “The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment.’’ “He works on a cable TV drama starring Timothy Hutton, and his first episode is airing in two weeks. I type an e-mail to [my wife]: ‘Should we record it?’ Before I press send, I pause. The ‘we’ in that sentence? It’s actually ‘Julie.’ The true meaning of my e-mail: ‘Julie, would you record it?’ I delete the e-mail. I schlep into the living room and program the Tivo myself.’’

Reached by phone, Jacobs said he hasn’t been able to quit “we’’ cold turkey.

“It is a little hard to give up,’’ he said. “It’s partly self-delusion; I think husbands say it because it makes us feel better, like we are contributing. The only real contribution is that we’re flapping our gums. I think it’s also to trick your wife into thinking you’re contributing. But I don’t know how successful that is.’’

Probably not very. Faith Deeter, a family and marriage therapist, and author of “The Conflict Pattern Revealed,’’ said “we’’ may have the opposite effect. “It’s irritating. The whole ‘should’ doesn’t work very well.’’ Better, she said, is to turn the veiled command into a legitimate question: “Will you take out the garbage?’’

Jim Duzak, author of “Mid-Life Divorce & the Rebirth of Commitment,’’ said the use of the “we’’ word is one of the many ways that couples communicate in a sort of passive-aggressive fashion. “The person saying it can hide behind the ‘we’ and pretend that he or she is not commanding anyone to do something.’’

It should be noted that “we’’ isn’t always manipulative, and, of course, romantic partners are not the only ones to employ it. There’s the nurse: “How are we feeling?’’ The waiter: “Are we still working on that?’’ The parent, when pointing out a toddler’s grumpiness: “We’re in a bad mood today.’’

And then there are other uses for the spousal “we.’’ Publicist Wendy Pierce wields it as a lawyer might, to establish that she told her husband something or at least said it out loud in his presence and that by not objecting he agreed to the situation. She gave a few examples. “We should sign [our daughter] up for gymnastics.’’ Or, “We should go to Florida.’’ She gives him his chance to protest, or forever hold his peace.

As for me, I gotta go. We’ve got a roofer to call.