Today I heard students discussing feedback that their team had received from a few instructors on a presentation. The students’ sentences uniformly began with the pronoun “they.”
They liked [such and such].
They said [so and so].
They didn’t like [such and such].
After several of those sentences, the “they” became a blur, and, even though I had a sense of who those instructor/feedback-givers were, it all started to feel vague to me. The actors — the givers or performers of the feedback — were made anonymous by the use of the nonspecific, plural pronoun.
I don’t want to shake my finger at the students. Indeed, I’ve heard teachers use the same pronoun to the same effect, referring over and over to an anonymous conglomerate of students as “they.”
They don’t do [such and such].
They seem to like [this or that].
They want [more].
This usage cloaks the identity or characteristics of individuals in a particular group. “They” also indicates that a group is not “we.”
And so, by designating an anonymous and even homogeneous them, we somehow reinforce the unity and presence of our us. There’s an implicit binary.
I have noticed that this tendency to invoke an anonymous “they” is not restricted to the realm of education. For example, after the dot-com bubble crash, I would sometimes hear people, still in great pain from having lost money and hope, rail against the violations of an anonymous They. They did this. All they wanted was that. They never told us that [something bad] could happen.
“They” is a very useful pronoun. It effectively and succinctly signifies a large group of others (in fewer letters than “large group,” or “the regulators,” or “the instructors,” or “the students in my intro psych class”), a group somehow distinct from our group. I do not think we should or even can eliminate the word from our speech.
However, when I catch myself using the pronoun “they,” I do wonder what experience or characteristics I’m trying to distance myself, and my peers, from. That’s what this use of “they” does — creates distance.
What does that distance offer us?
Image “Liverpool Street station crowd blur” by victoriapeckham on Flickr. License via Creative Commons.