You can’t imagine us

“We” is a strange word: You use it in the same way, whether you mean that you perform the action together with another person or if you do it with a thousand. 

But so much flexibility doesn’t come for free: Your identity as a social being is disconnected from reality when the size of the group you refer to crosses a threshold. 

The result is that thanks to language, we create and live in small worlds, incapable of assimilating a much larger, gigantic reality in which billions of people live. 

Language and identity, neurology and solitude: all come together in this new entry for the new year after a silence of many months.

The mega-tribes of our times

An extraordinary facet of human identity is the one that arises from your relationship with vast groups of people. Although, as a species, we have become accustomed to belonging to human collectives for hundreds of thousands of years, the sense of belonging to groups that number in the thousands or millions is surely very recent.

Almost all people born in our times are automatically assigned the nationality of some country and, with it, membership in a group consisting of between one hundred thousand (if you were born in Micronesia) and one and a half billion people (if you were born in China). That allocation is undoubtedly one of the most determinants in your life, along with the genetic material you inherited and the socioeconomic position in which you are born, and therefore plays a fundamental role in the way you shape your identity. From the time you are a child, you have a notion of belonging, not only to a tribe of a few dozen people who can make up your family but to a city or a country with hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

But nationality is not the only association we have with huge groups. Our times come with many possible affiliations to groups as big – or even bigger – than entire countries: the fans of some football club, the users of a particular type of cell phone, the followers of a Korean pop band. Although more casual than the ties formed by nationalities, all these groups contribute to sculpting the individual’s identity at the same time that they submerge her in a giant homogeneous mass made up of her companions. Russel Brand – a comedian turned conspiracy theory celebrity – greets his YouTube channel’s more than five million subscribers like family: “Hello to all the 5.6 million wonders that have awakened. Together, we journey towards the truth. Stumbling, falling, sometimes getting lost, but knowing in our hearts that we are improving”.

Belonging to a group can give us many benefits. When my iPhone runs out of battery life, I benefit from having another Apple enthusiast nearby who can lend me a charging cable. And when the Colombian soccer team scores a goal, my dopamine levels go through the roof. But it would be naive not to recognise that belonging to huge groups also hides the cause of nationalism and the systematic exclusion of entire populations. Deciding whether the benefits outweigh the harms is well beyond my knowledge or what I intend to address in this text.

The infinite plasticity of “us”

However, I have observed an element of tension in how we express our belonging to these mega-tribes that intrigues me and which I have decided to explore. I first noticed this phenomenon a few months ago when I watched an episode of the talk show Mesa Capital, discussing the 2022 Colombian presidential election. At one point, the host of the show (Carolina Sanín) was enthusiastically pointing at her guest (Cecilia López) the importance of what was at stake: “We have the power, we elect the president!”

There is nothing weird in this phrase – at least not in the first reading. Sanin, together with the other Colombians, formed that group referred to as “we”, the only group that “has” such power, the only one who could “elect” the president. Using any of the other five pronouns would have been confusing or just plain wrong (“she has the power”? “they elect”?). No, the only sentence without ambiguity that Sanín could say was the one she used. Only “we have the power, we elect the president.”

But on the other hand, the phrase exemplifies the fantastic power of the first-person plural: That “we” refers to a group of approximately 39 million people, the Colombian electoral census.

It was only until that moment, watching that talk show, that I realised the infinite flexibility this innocent pronoun has with its simple conjugation rules. Ever since then, I have not stopped thinking about its mysteries.

I can use the same word to refer to an action I perform with someone else (“we play squash”), and to an action I perform with an entire country. And if I want to, the magic word allows me to cover the whole planet because “we – the humans of the beginning of the 21st century – endanger life on the planet with our CO2 emissions”.

Of course, the other two plurals, “you” and “they”, also enjoy this unlimited capacity and can contain both two people and an infinity with the same ease. But what makes “we” unique is that it is the only pronoun in which two types of deeply antagonistic realities merge, the subjectivity of the “I” with the unfathomable experience of “they”. In this way, when conjugating “we”, a minotaur is created, a beast that mixes two types of beings that have nothing to do with each other.

The frivolity with which the first-person plural is used hides such subtlety. However, could it be that our identity remains unchanged when blending into “us”, whether the group we merge into has a couple of people or it has a thousand?

Identity vs Action

I pose the following argument: The identity of the individual as an agent performing an action, and the actual impact of the act itself, diverge as you include more people in the group referred to by the pronoun “we”.

I start with the “actual impact of the act”, perhaps the most obvious part. As the number of people covered by the “we” increases, the impact of individual action is diluted. This is known to anyone who has worked in a group at school or college, there is usually a threshold beyond which each extra person added contributes only marginally to the final result.

Not that this means that the individual contribution is negligible or did not require personal sacrifices. If you were one of the thousands of slaves who built the pyramids of Egypt or one of the thousands of engineers who put the man on the moon, you could attest to the hardships you went through. However, assuming that everyone who participated in the action contributed roughly the same proportion according to their ability, your share of authorship equals a fraction inversely proportional to the number of people in the group. If you’re part of a three-person team, about a third of the total action is due to you; if there are a hundred people, the hundredth part is thanks to you.

What I call “the impact” is outside of your subjective experience, it corresponds to an external reality that can be measured by others. And specifically, that impact is fungible because it can be combined with additions and subtractions to the impact of others. This is not a moral judgment but an arithmetic reality.

The other part of my argument has to do with what I call “identity”, that is, the image you form in your mind about who you are, what you are doing, and what your role is in the collective story. Identity is fundamentally a subjective reading of scattered elements that inhabit objective reality: How you perceive your physical appearance, your personality, your abilities, your position in society, your values, and your goals.

My postulate is that the way you construct that identity as a group member diverges from the role you actually play as the number of people grows: You perceive that the role you play is much more important than what it really is.

And this phenomenon arises because our sense of belonging is not sensitive enough to accurately identify the size of the group in which we are submerged. Is your work experience significantly different if you are in a group of 10 people or 15 people? Although there are 50% more in the latter and your net contribution has decreased a third, it is possible that the subjective reading of who you are in that group is only slightly different.

This illusion is accentuated as the group grows. Perhaps your subjective experience changes if your team at the office grows from 5 to 10 people. But do you think it would change in the same proportion if the size of your team increases from 20 people to 40? From 200 to 400? Or from 2,000 to 4,000?

Being part of a large group and a larger one

My intuition tells me that your subjective experience remains more or less constant from a certain number of people onwards.

The optimal population of Plato’s ideal city was 5040 individuals, an obviously arbitrary number, but one that sounds equally valid to propose as the threshold from which your subjective experience of belonging to a group remains more or less constant. Or, in other words, I suspect that it will not be immediate to perceive any difference if your tribe has five thousand people or fifty thousand people: your sense of belonging is the same in both cases, you perceive both groups in the same way.

I studied at three universities of different sizes: Los Andes University had 10,000 students, Oxford University had 25,000, and Utrecht University had 30,000. In all three cases, I felt equally proud to be one of their students, but the numbers were so gigantic that they did not change my attachment to them, nor was my sense of belonging different. The same thing happened in two companies where I have worked, feeling just as small but not insignificant in a company with 10,000 workers and another with 80,000.

Perhaps, to perceive a qualitative difference in your experience, you need to compare populations that differ by orders of magnitude: Living in a small town of ten thousand inhabitants surely “feels” different from living in a city of ten million.

Language and Identity

The specialised literature has widely documented how we exaggerate our contributions in group work. For example, in a study in which members of various groups of scientific researchers were asked what the proportion of their individual contribution had been to the total work, it always turned out that the sum of these contributions added more than 100%. A similar result was found in another study, in which married couples were asked what their individual contribution was to the total number of hours devoted to housework, but when added, they turned out to be more than 100%.

Exaggerating our contributions and belittling those of others is a phenomenon associated with cognitive processes in which reality is distorted to maintain our self-esteem (what is called in psychology “self-service bias”) or when we resort to immediate experiences that come to mind when evaluating specific concepts or decisions (“availability bias”).

The topic that concerns me in this entry falls within this discussion about mental dissociation when dealing with groups of people, but my emphasis is on the role that language plays in all of this.

I am definitely not the first to point out the problems that arise from the use of pronouns. A highly controversial debate is taking place in our times as some find the gender options offered by personal pronouns restrictive or insufficient.

In English, the traditional concept has been to divide the gender into masculine and feminine. But since the 1960s, the neutral character of the male pronoun (“he”) has been opposed by the feminist movement, and today we prefer to use inclusive language that makes both genders explicit (“he or she”). More recently, people who do not feel identified with either the masculine or the feminine genders have argued for the need to make more profound changes in the language so that it covers them. Thus, some would prefer to speak of “zie” or “tey”.

But gender is not the only characteristic of pronouns, they also have a grammatical number, that is, the number of people or objects that perform the action in a sentence. And it is on this dimension that I notice a deficiency in the language. The divergence that I described earlier, between the objective impact and the subjective identity when the individual is part of a group, is accentuated by having to resort to a pronoun that fails to distinguish between a group of two and a group of a million.

Compression (with and without loss of information)

Pronouns do a formidable job, making it possible to compress large amounts of information and make the language more efficient. Replacing an endless list of specific names with a single word must have been a revolution in some primitive language, a cognitive seism as perhaps few have been seen. (Who were those visionaries who first used some version of “we”? Did it happen ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years ago? Unfortunately, I am absolutely ignorant about all this.)

However, as any engineer will know, data compression comes at the cost of losing resolution. In many cases, such loss is negligible. For example, when you save a picture in JPEG format, you don’t realise that a considerable proportion of data about the position and colour of the pixels has been discarded: Your eyes cannot detect that what you are seeing is a reconstruction of the image with only 10% of the original information. But inadequate compression can completely distort or obstruct the meaning, something we experience when faced with an image that is too pixelated.

The compression achieved by the pronoun “we” is adequate in many situations, surely when the group of people in question is small. But as the size grows, the problems begin to become more noticeable. Neuroscience offers us some clues here.

Dr Amit Almor and his colleagues at the University of South Carolina have studied neural activity associated with language for decades. By analysing dozens of images obtained with magnetic resonance imaging, they were able to establish that the brain responds to the invocation of each proper name (for example, “John” or “Mary”) by creating and storing in memory a mental representation of the person. This representation combines highly complex visual and auditory information, which is associated in some way with that person. However, with each new person we integrate into a sentence, the brain will have to allocate more resources to store the individual representations of each of them.

Personal pronouns avoid this problem entirely, freeing up all that memory space and relieving the brain of overloading. Dr Almor discovered that using pronouns activates areas of the brain other than those traditionally associated with language.

“We are at the mercy of our memory system, which is limited,” Almor said in an article in Science Daily. “The more items or representations we hold, the more effort we need to spend so as not to lose information. Pronouns let us avoid that juggle in our brains. I expected to find activity in classic language areas of the brain. I was surprised to see activity in the spatial areas, but it makes perfect sense.”

Dr Almor’s studies make me think that although the brain generates individual representations for each person, it cannot distinguish different sizes of plurals. Perhaps if we could study a few dozen brains with MRIs, using Dr Almor’s procedures, we would see that the activation zones when using the word “we” vary a bit as we increase the number of people we refer to but remains unaltered after a certain threshold.

Or in other words, I suggest that at the physiological level, we can compress the reference to a group of people only up to a certain number, beyond which our brains cannot construct differentiated and adequate mental models. We just don’t have the neural circuitry to imagine and talk about populations with millions of people.

The consequence of all this is that we end up building in our minds a world with a limited number of people. Although we know that we are 8 billion on this planet, we live and die as if we were only a few thousand. And I suspect that a privileged position, say in the pyramid of global political power, cannot change this: Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping make decisions in which their instincts are calibrated for fundamentally smaller worlds than the ones they rule.

The deficiency of the pronoun “we”, of course, is not the only problem in the language. There is a whole field of study that seeks to understand the tensions between what we say (the “symbol”), what we want to say (the “thought”), and the thing that really exists and to which we are referring (the “referent”).

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, said the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, for whom language and reality were essentially the same. The limits imposed by the pronoun “we” are the limits in which we can live, even though our times submerge us in groups whose size exceeds the capacities of our minds.

Will there be a solution?

If the development of the English language were decided by a committee, I would submit an application to introduce some changes to the first-person plural. Of course, I wouldn’t want to make it even more cumbersome than it is, it would just be a matter of adding a few new pronouns and their respective conjugation rules. For example, a new “we” could refer to me and a small group of people I know very well. Another one could refer to me and a large group of people, one in which I know many of its members, or a large group in which I have a lot of influence. And another one that recognises that my representation in the group is too small, something like a mix of 1% “me” and 99% “them”.

In my application, I would remind the language committee that English speakers used to have access to two different pronouns to refer to the second-person singular: “thou” and “you”. Having both pronouns allowed a speaker to change the intention of her sentence, “thou” being associated with a greater degree of familiarity than “you”. Both pronouns modulated the experience with greater precision, more effectively reconciling our identity with the external reality.

I would also mention the existence of other languages that exhibit a more extensive range of options for the grammatical number. For example, Irish, Lithuanian, and Slovene have a specific plural to refer to two people and another for when there are three or more. The Oceanic languages Mussau, Raga, and Aneityum distinguish numbers with exactly three persons. In Russian, the genitive singular also applies when there are two, three, or four people – but not five or more. And in the Hopi, Walpiri and Fijian languages, there is the paucal number, an exclusive plural to denote that the group is small and not large.

Fortunately, no language is decided by a committee. Languages are not built following rational rules written in stone but rather evolve as their speakers are exposed to new realities and adopt new values. In English, there is a tendency to simplify the language to make it more efficient; therefore, incorporating new pronouns that improve our experience of plurality is not on anyone’s list of priorities.

However, making such profound changes to English is not necessary to solve the problem I describe in this essay. The most important contribution of making our language more inclusive has not been to gain precision in distinguishing women from men but rather to make us more careful with what we say, forcing us to admit that reality is not as narrow as the boundaries of language make us believe.

In the same way, perhaps it is enough that we become a little more careful when we use “we”, recognising that there is a dissociation between the internal world that we inhabit and with which we identify and what happens in the external reality. Warning of this trap becomes particularly critical in times of rulers and “influencers” seeking to exacerbate the illusion that you are more prominent on their radar than you really are.

Our loneliness in a crowd

Jorge Luis Borges denied plurality and collapsed all human experience in the total subjectivity of a single mind: “A single man has been born, a single man has died on earth.” But his position of extreme idealism leaves us abandoned, prey to the starkest loneliness: “I speak of the only one, the single man, he who is always alone.”

My reflection on language and the “we” pronoun points in the opposite direction, acknowledging and extolling the plurality of other subjectivities when combined with my own. But not without surprise, I discover that I also reach solitude, perhaps by another path. It is one of a different nature, the one you feel in a crowd.

Because when you defy the illusion that we are just a few, where your role is the main one, you open your eyes and realise that the force of “we” crushes the action of the self. It is not that you are the only one: it is that you’re almost nobody.

1 Comment

  • Posted January 4, 2023
    by Anastasiya

    Nice article! And what a great conclusion and food for though and reflection.

    I also enjoyed it from the linguistic perspective and refreshed my lecture notes from the course “The History of the English Language” 🙂 So, the pronouns used nowadays date back to Old English — approx. we’re talking about mid 5th century in oral speech and first written works in 7th century. Turns out, not that long ago.

    As for the Russian language, I just realized how difficult it is for foreigners. This rule with genitive singular also has its tricks as it works only in combination ”numeral + noun”.

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