Have I been acting rude for most of my life?
June 19, 2013 2:15 AM   Subscribe

Is it rude to refer to someone in the third person (he/she) while they are present?

I recently watched a video of comedian Russell Brand on the MSNBC show Morning Joe. At time codes: 5:12 and 6:08 he gets very upset with the hosts for referring to him using a third person pronoun.

Honestly, I had no idea that this was somehow rude. I'm sure that I've done this in social settings, and currently feel pretty bad about it. I read the comments section of the Gawker site, and it seems that the level of appropriateness of third person pronouns is debatable. Really, the whole discussion left me a bit confused, and I could use some perspective.

Here is a link to the Gawker site: Russell Brand Destroys MSNBC Talk Show Host for Treating Him Like Shit
Here is a link to the video on YouTube in case the Gawker video is flaky, as it was for me: YouTube version

Questions:
1) Is it a social faux pas to refer to someone using a third person pronoun when they are present?
2) If so, for what reason? It was suggested that it's objectifying and exclusionary, is that true?

Note: The hosts were actually pretty rude in a number of other ways. They made comments about his accent and clothing, as well as started off the interview by introducing him as someone whose work they had never seen before. I'm not asking about those comments as they were obviously very inappropriate.
posted by Shouraku to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I moved to Britain this was almost instantly pointed out as being - if not offensive - then at least less polite. The reminder you always hear here is "She is the cat's mother."
posted by sagwalla at 2:29 AM on June 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


"1) Is it a social faux pas to refer to someone using a third person pronoun when they are present?"
Yes, referring to someone who is present in the third present is rude or at least something to be avoided.

"2) If so, for what reason? It was suggested that it's objectifying and exclusionary, is that true?"
When one is present and people are talking about them in the third person it does give a person the impression that the conversation is about them and not with them. While not being a specific injunction against the subject of the conversation joining in, it is still not very inclusive and tends to be an uncomfortable situation for the subject.

I experienced being talked about in the third person the most in grade school by teachers talking to the principle or my parents. It was really poor communication skills and very insensitive. Was I allowed to give my assessment of their assessment. I don't think so and part of the way I could tell was that it was not first person or second person accounts but third person accounts.

Third person is "as if they weren't here".

I've slipped on this guideline of not talking about persons who are present in the third person before and likely will again, but I think it is a very good guideline.
posted by logonym at 2:34 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's impolite. I'd say that is because it is exclusionary - you'd be talking about the person, rather than with them.

(And 'she' is indeed the cat's mother)
posted by pompomtom at 2:35 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think every use of a third person pronoun is verboten, but only when required to maintain flow. eg: "Bob doesn't have to to it if Bob doesn't want to" sounds ridiculous. But yeah, in general referring to someone with a third person pronoun when they're present is pretty rude.
posted by russm at 2:37 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've also always heard it is rude, but like russm I am skeptical that even the most careful etiquette obeyers avoid it at all times. For example, "I'd like to introduce you to Sarah. Sarah is one of my oldest friends. Sarah and I were at school together" is weirder to me than "I'd like to introduce you to Sarah. She is one of my oldest friends..." etc. Certainly I don't think anyone would say the latter is rude.
posted by lollusc at 2:41 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


(And yeah in NZ too, "she is the cat's mother" is the thing teachers and parents always say to children to tell them off for doing this. I don't really understand this at all. Funny to hear it is so widespread.)
posted by lollusc at 2:42 AM on June 19, 2013


American here. Maybe in Britain people are more sensitive to it for some reason, but I can think of a lot of examples that would not be rude at all.

- "This is my son, Ben, he lives in Chicago and he's visiting for the week."
- "Is this your beer or Jake's?" "I can't remember but I think it's his."
- "Can I take your orders, ladies?" "Yes, I'll have a cheese sandwich and orange juice and my mom will have an omelet, please, and just water for her."

To me, making extended commentary about someone in the third person can be rude or embarrassing if the person is right there. But it's not the use of the third person itself that makes it rude. It's being openly critiqued or judged or just observed by people in a way that all you can do is just stand there and listen to it. But the same commentary about you made directly to you would be rude or embarrassing a lot of the time too.

The other time it can be kind of rude is when you're speaking for someone who can speak for themselves. "Where are you from, Edna?" "She's from Cleveland." That would be a bit buttinsky to me, but again, not just because of the use of the third person itself.

The main thing about that clip with Russell Brand I think is that he was trying to keep those people off-balance and a bit nervous and one-down in the interaction. He's really good at doing that with people who are kind of uptight or square and people-pleasing. One thing that knocks uptight/square/people-pleasing folks off-balance is if they think they have offended you or made a faux pas. See in the clip Russell Brand complains about one faux-pas after the next, like when the table broke, when the woman bent over in front of him, etc. He fires them at the people quickly. I doubt that he was particularly offended by the third person thing, I think it was just part of his overall tactic for dominating the conversation.
posted by cairdeas at 2:45 AM on June 19, 2013 [21 favorites]


[Comment deleted; this needs to be more about answering the question than commenting about Brand, which you can do over here. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:55 AM on June 19, 2013


I think that it really depends on context. It is definitely rude to talk about someone like they aren't in the room, and using the third person lends itself to that. But as long as you are including the person in the conversation, it doesn't seem like it is inherently rude to occasionally refer to someone in the third person.

Ex: "Bob knows all the secret gems in the city. He took me out to dinner last week at the most amazing restaurant. What was its name again?" (Turn to Bob, let him tell the story about the restaurant.)

As to using the person's name vs the third person pronoun, I think it's going to depend on how recently the name was used. It would sound really awkward and stilted to ONLY refer to someone with their name, over and over again. You'd mix it up.

(American, if it matters.)
posted by tan_coul at 2:57 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think I would need to hear examples of your instances of doing this before knowing whether it was rude or not. The examples Cairdeas gives above are absolutely not rude (with the possible exception of the third one, unless there was a prior understanding that you would order for the person instead of let them do it themselves). No British person would object to a short, third person introduction.

So it's about context, entirely. I can also think of non-rude examples where speaking about someone in the third is used kind of jokingly, performatively (and possibly affectionately). As in: "She's always criticising the way I chop onions!" to a third person in the room after an exchange with your partner.

But the way the presenters spoke about Brand was shockingly rude. Not just because of the things they were saying, but because they were excluding him from a conversation about him.
posted by distorte at 3:06 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, I didn't watch it all the way to the end, I stopped it when he started talking about Edward Snowden. In the last part, when he finishes his whole derail about Snowden and Bradley Manning, etc., I think the blonde woman deliberately refers to him in the third person again in order to regain control of the conversation. The male host goes with it and I think the two of them are being deliberately a little condescending on purpose to him, putting him back into his place. After that whole impassioned outpouring he gave, to start making cracks about how easy it is to understand him when he talks, and his chest hair. When he objects to it then, I think he's again trying to get the upper hand in the conversation.

The point of my saying this is that the third person (and objections to it) are being used here as kind of manipulative conversational tactics by two "sides" of people who are professionals at manipulating/dominating conversations for a living. So the point is I feel like the use in this clip is pretty different to real life. (Or maybe not, in some situations!)
posted by cairdeas at 3:13 AM on June 19, 2013


I've always heard the reminder as
Who's she — the cat's mother-in-law?
which is not only used when referring to someone in the third person when in actuality they're right there in the room (in which case the person in question might well be the one to use the phrase) but also when someone uses "(s)he" in conversation without making it clear to whom they're referring, in which case it's a pointed request to be more specific.

I think using the third person to talk about someone else who's actually present is automatically exclusionary: it splits the individual concerned away from the group. In the examples given above, this split makes complete sense: the individual is being picked out because they are being introduced to someone else (you'll also often see this form of speech when a speaker is introduced to an audience) so they're split off from the group by definition. It becomes rude when the speaker is making assertions about the individual which really ought to be questions directed at them. Think of the
Does he take sugar?
question oft used as an exemplar of the way disabled people are denied agency over their own preferences by those around them.
posted by pharm at 3:22 AM on June 19, 2013


Just realised I didn't really say why it's exclusionary, but if that is causing some confusion: When a group conversation is happening and one person addresses another directly, this sets off a tangental discussion. An aside. I suppose the way this is most often visible is that one person will turn their head or focus their gaze directly on who they want to have an aside with. These tangental discussions go on all the time during larger group discussions (e.g. dinner parties will fragment frequently into a bunch of smaller conversations).

If someone's having a tangental discussion, even if they're at the same table as you, you have to break in to it. Make an interjection. This happens all the time at table-wide discussions, and sometimes it opens the conversation back out to a table-wide discussion. Nothing rude in these fragmentations or interjections.

But if someone's having an aside about you, it's not a discussion with you. This is by default exclusionary and to simply clarify something about yourself you have to make an interjection. I've been at group gatherings where I've been aware of my partner or friend talking about me somewhere on the other side of the table, but I'm in the middle of my own aside, unavailable, and as such don't find it rude.

The dinner party dynamic is unworkable in a TV studio, where there can be only one point of focus. One active conversation. So it's not possible for the interviewers to go off and have an aside, as it becomes instantly the focus of the viewer. It's a big component of why Brand was finding the behaviour so rude, so exclusionary. Because it excludes him not just from the exchange but from the viewers also.
posted by distorte at 3:32 AM on June 19, 2013


Native New Yorker here who was taught that under most circumstances, this is incredibly rude and after a few minutes searching, I found an Emily Post article that says, "it seems to negate the person's presence entirely, or to imply he is either deaf, dumb, or stupid."

Growing up in my family of very loud and boisterous Italians, we were taught this way:

Okay to say:

"Grandma, you made the best meatballs! I love you!"
"Uncle Emilio, when are we going to the racetrack?"

Not okay:
"Grandma made the best meatballs! I love her!" because Grandma would reply, "I'm right here. Stop talking about me like I'm dead." And then she would cross herself and say a little prayer to the Virgin.

"Me and Uncle Emilio are going to see the ponies," because Uncle Emilio would reply, "I'm right here. Don't talk about me like I'm dead. And I told you not to tell your mother, what are you, touched in the head?" Then he would reach over and knock you in the head.
posted by kinetic at 3:36 AM on June 19, 2013 [25 favorites]


Last thought, I also definitely hear this a lot in joking among friends, and to me it's not even rude joking, just kind of cheeky sometimes.

For example, one of my friends was trying to convince this guy that the motorcycle out front was his, and I felt the need to rain on his parade once the guy started believing him and I felt guilty.

Guy: "Wow, it's really yours?"
Me: "No, it is not his, he is just joking."
Friend: "It is mine!!"
Me: "No, it is not his, he has never even been on a motorcycle, at most he's been on a scooter." I was being a wet blanket, but I don't think I was being rude.

Or, when you need to make fun of your friends and it is just in fun...

"Mike complained so much about joining us for the midnight showing of Clueless but it is actually his favorite movie."
Mike: "That is not my favorite movie at all."
"Yes it is, he loves it."
Mike: "At most it's in my top ten."

To me that's like silly teasing with friends, not rude.
posted by cairdeas at 3:36 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think one does need to distinguish between actual conversation and the pseudo-conversation that is a talk show (particularly morning-show) script framework. The guest is, to be cynical, not there to have a "conversation" but to hawk something and briefly entertain in the context of moving on to the next segment. As such they are expected to allow things to flow around them. When Mika was talking about Brand in the third person, it was a setup for a script that would discuss him then go back to him as an entertainment object. Perhaps on one of these she would say "Brian, is Russell Brand an ass?", then segue to "Click on our front page for the online poll and tell us whether Russell Brand is an ass." Et cetera.

(I'm not defending this approach to television newsertainment, just explaining how it works. Brand entertained by breaking script this time, but only some people are good enough on their feet to get away with that. Many are lucky to get through a full sentence without getting lost in the woods a la Miss Utah and most first-timers have to be coached.)
posted by dhartung at 3:48 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe in Britain people are more sensitive to it for some reason, but I can think of a lot of examples that would not be rude at all.

- "This is my son, Ben, he lives in Chicago and he's visiting for the week."
- "Is this your beer or Jake's?" "I can't remember but I think it's his."
- "Can I take your orders, ladies?" "Yes, I'll have a cheese sandwich and orange juice and my mom will have an omelet, please, and just water for her."


The difference with the Brand clip is that they are not asking/answering questions where it flows better using he/his/him etc, they are having a discussion about Brand as if he wasn't there, and not using his name makes it sound extra rude.

Brand: *cutting statement about modern media*
Presenter 1: Isn't he great, Presenter 2?
Presenter 2: Yes he has some really interesting comments!
Presenter 1: I know! And he's such a great dresser.
Brand: Er, hello? I'm still here?

A more professional, polite way to have that same discussion would be:

Brand: *cutting statement about modern media*
Presenter 1: I've got to say Russell, I'm a big fan of yours. What about you, Presenter 2?
Presenter 2: Oh yes, I've always thought that Russell makes some really interesting comments.
Presenter 1: I know! And you're such a great dresser too, Russell.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:57 AM on June 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Thank you all for your answers!

On a third viewing: I think the issue that launched my confusion is that around time code 5:12 Mika says something to the effect of "I don't think that it's about listening to him as much as it's about the whole [Brand] experience, and taking it all in." She says this while looking right at Russell, so I didn't immediately detect that it might be exclusionary, as her comment was obviously directed at him despite the pronoun usage.

Thank you for the many examples, those were extremely helpful.
posted by Shouraku at 4:01 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


My mother (British family) used to get angry about this and used to say a variant of the cat thing: but she never explained and it was several years before small Segundus actually worked out what it was she was objecting to.
posted by Segundus at 4:02 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


A colleague (who reports to me, who I've mentored) does this and it drives me crazy. In a meeting she will reference a comment by me and say, "As she told you ..." and kind of indicate me with body language or a glance in my direction. I have meant to tactfully talk to her about it for a long time ... maybe this post will give me the courage (I don't want to hurt her feelings!)
posted by thinkpiece at 4:15 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, this could be a British thing. I, too, had relatives who would say "Who's she? The cat's mother?" if someone referred to a present female in the third person.
posted by Decani at 4:16 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of the uses of the word 'British' in this thread might be replaced with 'Commonwealth' (or maybe 'non-American'). Not completely sure though.
posted by pompomtom at 4:39 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd also observe that you can use a pronoun to refer to someone in a sentence AFTER you've identified him/her by name.

So in one of the examples above: "This is my son, Ben, he lives in Chicago and he's visiting for the week.," it's OK to use the "he", as you are trying not to be repetitive (i.e., this is Ben, Ben is from Chicago, Ben is here for the week).
posted by kuanes at 5:08 AM on June 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also British, also grew up with the "who's 'she', the cat's mother?" thing. The rough rule of this as I understand it:

- don't refer to someone as 'she' or 'he' if you could use their name/title instead. So a kid arguing with its sibling by pointing to their mother and saying "She said we could share the toy!" would be rude, and the exact kind of thing you'd have got "'she' is the cat's mother" for. There's a sense in which it was (and still is to a degree, although I think less these days) considered especially disrespectful to refer to women like that, but the rule here isn't just about that; it's more of a general prohibition on using the pronoun in place of a name/title. So the kind of example thinkpiece talks about would be rude, but introducing a speaker with "And now our next guest, Mary McSomething! Mary is a world expert in aquatic Christmas decorations, and she's here to talk to us about her latest book on tinselfish" would not be.

- don't refer to someone as 'she' or 'he' if you could use 'you' instead. In other words, don't talk about someone as though they're not in the room, as the other people do with Russell Brand.

What Brand is pulling the other people up for in that video clip is both, kind of, although more the second than the first - they're discussing him as though he's an object, not another participant in the conversation, and that they're not bothering to use his name underlines that.
posted by Catseye at 5:10 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This might be largely a British thing, but the manner in which it's done in the Brand clip is rude no matter the nation. It's not just that they're talking about him in the third person; it's that the content of their conversation is disparaging, the kind of gossip one would usually sow behind someone's back. They're also admitting to not listening to the words that he's saying, which isn't particularly nice.

And yes, this is more common with individuals with disabilities and with children. The assumption is that they can't speak for themselves, or more, shouldn't.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:52 AM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


So in one of the examples above: "This is my son, Ben, he lives in Chicago and he's visiting for the week.," it's OK to use the "he", as you are trying not to be repetitive (i.e., this is Ben, Ben is from Chicago, Ben is here for the week).

Better would be, "This is my son Ben, who lives in Chicago and is visiting for the week." It's best to avoid talking about someone who is present in the third person. The treatment of Brand was very rude, indeed, but I don't expect much from morning show hosts.
posted by Dolley at 5:57 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just throwing it out there, in response to pompomtom: in my Canadian household, this was absolutely the rudest. We didn't get "Who's she, the cat's mother?" rather, "Who's she? Chopped liver?" which was terribly confusing to YoungAmandaA for many reasons.
posted by AmandaA at 6:34 AM on June 19, 2013


> I think a lot of the uses of the word 'British' in this thread might be replaced with 'Commonwealth' (or maybe 'non-American')

I first heard "'She' is the cat's mother" from my Danish teacher. But she said it in English, so who knows.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:34 AM on June 19, 2013


This is a really interesting discussion. As an American, I was never told the "cat's mother" rule as a matter of etiquette. But I would never talk about a present person using a third person pronoun without first using his or her name.

I do think a couple things are getting muddled up here. The issue is really the pronoun, not the third person. "It's about listening to Brand as much as it's about the whole experience" is referring to Brand in the third person just as much as "It's about listening to him as much as it's about the whole experience" is. The first is just as exclusionary; it's still talking about the man as if he isn't there.

In kinetic's example above, "Me and Uncle Emilio are going to see the ponies" is actually okay (etiquette-wise!). How else is this information supposed to be conveyed if the kid is talking to his mom, for example? Does he have to get her alone so that Emilio's not present when he says this?

But what thinkpiece described is definitely gauche:
In a meeting she will reference a comment by me and say, "As she told you ..." and kind of indicate me with body language or a glance in my direction.

I don't buy Emily Post's reasoning, though. Grammatically speaking, "As thinkpiece told you" equally implies that thinkpiece is not present, yet it's perfectly acceptable. So I don't think the problem is so much that referring to thinkpiece as "she" is exclusionary. It's more that indicating a person using a pronoun and body language is disrespectful because it's perfunctory, like you couldn't be troubled to come up with her name. And of course, the use of body language to indicate a person is pretty much always rude (don't point!).

Emily Post brings into the discussion the discourtesy of referring to a child or an elderly person as if he or she is not there. This is a related but different problem, in which it is rude to refer to the person by name OR by third-person pronoun. The problem here is that the speaker ought to be addressing the child or elderly person directly rather than asking someone else what the person thinks/wants.

Finally, I think the example given by the OP is kind of an outlier, probably made possible as people have said above by the format. Talking about a person like this in regular conversation would definitely be rude--and bizarre. But I agree with dhartung about the way it's being used on the show. And with cairdeas that Brand's response is more about the push and pull of a TV conversation than about etiquette.
posted by torticat at 6:36 AM on June 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's more that indicating a person using a pronoun and body language is disrespectful because it's perfunctory, like you couldn't be troubled to come up with her name. And of course, the use of body language to indicate a person is pretty much always rude (don't point!).

You know, that's true, and also, it's to be courteous to the others as well. Which "she" are you talking about? There are four other "shes" in the room, maybe a listener zoned out for a sec or isn't looking for body language or is not completely familiar with all the "shes". Sticking a name in there is just common-sense directive, like signposts along the way.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:55 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


it's to be courteous to the others as well. Which "she" are you talking about?

Oh yes, that's a good point. We probably don't think that much about "clarity" in relation to courtesy, but it is definitely part of good conversation manners.
posted by torticat at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2013


Having a TESOL moment, and to bolster what torticat said about names versus pronouns:

The use of a proper name rather than a pronoun doesn't mean it's somehow not a third-person reference. "The Eiffel Tower is in Paris" is just as much a third-person reference as "The building is in Paris" or "It is in Paris."

"Bob is my best friend" is just as much third-person as "This guy is my best friend" or "He is my best friend."

As others are getting at, it's the thought, not the grammar, that counts. As far as the "cat's mother" thing, I can think of circumstances where employing a cliche to critique someone's etiquette in the moment is far more rude and disruptive to a conversation than the use of a pronoun.
posted by Schielisque at 7:21 AM on June 19, 2013


I'm Canadian and was friends as a kid with a family that had immigrated from England: they said the "cat's mother" thing all the time, but I never heard it anywhere else. (My parents' families are both originally from England but many generations back.)
posted by Susan PG at 8:04 AM on June 19, 2013


Anecdotally, I [in London] have an acquaintance who does this with their SO. The effect is to marginalise and exclude the SO, and make it look as though this person values their current interlocutor over their actual partner.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:07 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Not addressing scenarios where it's obviously meant as teasing]

Looking at the principle alone, talking over someone's head in the third person is definitely rude, because it diminishes the person that's being talked about to an object that can be contemplated at will; it's a strategy for gaining, or maintaining some kind of power over said object.

It may often be experienced as extra hurtful, because it triggers negative and long-gone childhood sensations, being essentially a remnant of some grown-ups' behavior around children - like, "Yeah and you know, next week he's going to get glasses, and blabla such CUUTE frames we selected, and we've been talking a lot about how important it is, blablabla, big boy, will do well, blablabla, [turns to blushing child] won't we, Alex???"

Talking about acceptance in various cultures, I think that it largely is a thing that those keep alive who like to talk about others in the room in the third person, and not by those who are being talked about. So yes, if everyone anyway does it all the time, it could be construed as not-rude in certain contexts. From an European perspective, "yes, rude" seems the more likely answer to me...

How rude is it in your social context? Test yourself by imagining inverted roles: how would you feel if anyone else did that to you? Like, you're at a party with a gang of people you sorta half know and one of them would start talking about you to the others in the third person. Ok? Not ok? Why?
posted by Namlit at 8:28 AM on June 19, 2013


As an aside, it's considered (in my family) superrude to refer to someone as he or she or they when they're physically in the room. My mom will go bananas if I say, referring to her, "She wants pizza for dinner," instead of, "Mom had mentioned getting pizza."

Then it's the "Don't talk about me like I'm dead," and genuflecting.
posted by kinetic at 8:47 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like, you're at a party with a gang of people you sorta half know and one of them would start talking about you to the others in the third person. Ok? Not ok? Why?

Regarding the third person aspect of this, it would depend entirely on context. In this example, given above, it would be perfectly fine (if I were Jake): "Is this your beer or Jake's?" "I can't remember but I think it's his." Schielisque pretty much sums it up, "it's the thought, not the grammar, that counts." It is definitely possible to talk about a person purposefully as if he or she were not there (as a power play or form of manipulation), but this kind of exclusion is not inherent in the third person form. There are many times that we use the third person about present company in ways that aren't exclusionary at all:

"Alright, you take the truck; torticat and I will follow you in the car."
"Your father and I have a gift for you."
"Mom just said she wants pizza, aren't you listening?"
"Bob called shotgun, but you can have the front seat on the way back."
"So what I'm hearing you say is, when John doesn't take out the trash it makes you feel unloved?"

Regarding the pronoun issue--if you replaced one of the names above with a pronoun and a head gesture, and the name hadn't been mentioned immediately prior, it would be as best casual/offhand toward that person and at worst gauche. But it still wouldn't be exclusionary or manipulative.

I don't think there's a cultural disconnect here. From a European perspective, would any of my examples be considered rude?
posted by torticat at 9:55 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


How rude is it in your social context? Test yourself by imagining inverted roles: how would you feel if anyone else did that to you? Like, you're at a party with a gang of people you sorta half know and one of them would start talking about you to the others in the third person. Ok? Not ok? Why?

To be frank, if this was as simple as "how would you feel?" I (hopefully) would have been able to figure it out on my own. There is actually a bit of background that I didn't include in my question because, due to ignorance, I didn't know that it was uncommon.

Where I'm from, there is a common linguistic short cut that is used to ask a question. So common, in fact, that I can almost guarantee that I'll hear it used at least once today. When I saw the Russell Brand interview, I thought that Mika was using this short cut, and was flabbergasted to find that what I had always assumed was a common part of the English language, may not be socially acceptable outside of my local environment.

Here is an example, lets say that I'm at a table with two other people, Abby and Jake:

Jake: "Shou, do you like the color blue?"
Abby: (turns to look directly at me) "I seem to remember that she does like blue, she mentioned it just last week."

The reason that this wouldn't be considered rude in my Midwestern American state (though maybe it's actually just a Detroit thing?) is because:

1) Abby looked straight at me, therefore directing the comment straight to me as opposed to looking at Jake, which would have been construed as "answering for me" as many of the above posters have mentioned. This is why she could say "she" instead of using my name; it's obvious that "she" is the person that Abby is looking at. Why not just say my name? Because "she" is presumably faster to say than my name, and this short cut is commonly used when people are speaking quickly.

2) Do to regional social experience, I would have recognized that the comment was being addressed to me for the purpose of getting my input or confirmation. Basically a question without the question mark (the short cut). Abby is asking for confirmation of her memory and understanding.

In other words, the full sentence would be:

"Shou, I seem to remember that you do like blue, as you mentioned it just last week, is that correct?"

But the short cut would be:

(looks at me) "I seem to remember that she does like blue, she mentioned it just last week."

Both of these are equivalent to my ear, assuming of course that it was made clear through body language and eye contact that the comment was directed towards me for confirmation. This is a pretty common, though admittedly lazy, way of speaking. It's usually used when someone is in a hurry, not typically in formal conversations where time isn't of the essence.

So, to my ear, Mika tried to convey:

"Russell, I think that maybe your show is more about the experience and less about what is actually said, is that correct?"

However, she got lazy with her speech, was keeping with the informal nature of the show, or was just in a hurry to get to the next topic, and said:

(looks at Russell) "I think that his show is more about the experience than what is actually said."

Then she paused and waited for him to answer the question, but since he didn't seem to be aware that it was a question, coupled with body language to indicate that she was addressing him, he felt objectified and was understandably offended.

Now, it's more likely that I projected the question short cut onto the conversation. Realistically, given how demeaning she was being in other aspects of the interview, she was probably just being exclusionary and rude, but I am SO glad that I asked Mefi about this because when similar conversations happen around my part of the world, it's meant in good faith, just also in lazy faith, I suppose.

I now understand that this is probably not a good short cut to use, and will make a conscious effort to stop. Thank you all for explaining this to me.

Note: I didn't talk about tone, but when you use the question short cut it's assumed that you do it in an inviting tone of voice that indicates that you're asking the person you're addressing to confirm you're opinion/memory/understanding.
posted by Shouraku at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2013


As far as regionalisms go: I'm Australian, my mother was born in Britain, and if someone acted offended by my use of the third person in their presence I'd assume they were either trolling or a senior citizen remembering some archaic rule that nobody ever used anymore.
posted by jacalata at 12:49 PM on June 19, 2013


Jake: "Shou, do you like the color blue?"
Abby: (turns to look directly at me) "I seem to remember that she does like blue, she mentioned it just last week."


In your example, Jake clearly directed the question to you, not Abby. Regardless of who Abby is looking at during her response, the fact that she felt the need to step in and answer for you as if you were a child or incapable of answering for yourself is exactly the kind of behavior that I would consider rude and belittling.

Also, I never head the "She's the cat's mother" phrase before but I like it! After a bit of Googling, it seems phrase refers to the fact that a male cat was commonly called a "Tomcat" or "Tom" and a female cat was called a "She-cat" or "She." Hence, "She" is another word for "the cat's mother." Makes perfect sense!
posted by platinum at 1:27 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Shouraku, I've seen the thing you're describing. I wouldn't call it common, so there might be a regional thing going on there if you hear it all the time. But it's not rude; the questioning intonation makes it clear that the "third person" is being included rather than the opposite. I definitely don't think it's what the "cat's mother" expression is meant to correct.

And it's not what was going on on the "Morning Joe" show. Those people were just being kind of weird. Except that they were "reviewing" him (or the "Brand experience"), so it kind of makes sense in that way, but it still comes across as inept/rude. Anyway I don't think you should feel bad about the somewhat idiosyncratic usage you describe because of what Brand complained about on the show; it's not the same thing.
posted by torticat at 1:36 PM on June 19, 2013


If another person answers a question that was directed at me, then that person has excluded me from the conversation. It doesn't matter whether or not my name was used.

Alternatively, if someone asks me what I'm doing for my SO's birthday (or some such thing), and I answer "I'm taking him to the beach for the weekend," and he pipes up from outside the conversation "Hey, don't talk about me like I'm dead," I would think about uninviting him from my beach plans.

I don't see what the difference is between using someone's name or using a pronoun.

Honestly, I hate hearing my name from across the room, because then I think I'm being talked about behind my back. So, kind of the opposite of what I'm hearing from everyone. Again, I find kneejerk reactions to arbitrary rules of etiquette that don't actually apply to the social context at hand are usually more inappropriate than the alleged "rude" action, and typically result from someone trying to assert superiority-- kind of like when someone corrects your grammar or pronunciation in front of a group. Rude.
posted by Schielisque at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


So I have been guilty of things like this:

"As she told you ..." and kind of indicate me with body language or a glance in my direction.

in situations where I can't remember the person's name and it's someone who I've interacted with enough in the past that I really ought to know their name, so I can't ask. It sounds terribly awkward, and I'm always worried they will realize that it's a cover for the fact that I don't remember their name and be really insulted that I can't be bothered to remember their name. If you used it in a situation where you actually do know their name, someone might still wonder if you didn't. Doesn't apply to the Russell Brand situation, obviously, but seems like it might be relevant sometimes?
posted by naoko at 3:13 PM on June 19, 2013


In your example, Jake clearly directed the question to you, not Abby. Regardless of who Abby is looking at during her response, the fact that she felt the need to step in and answer for you as if you were a child or incapable of answering for yourself is exactly the kind of behavior that I would consider rude and belittling.

Read my post again. Abby wasn't answering for me, she was asking me a question using a linguistic short cut that is apparently really uncommon outside of my region.

However, the fact that the vast majority of the posters here can't see it as anything but answering for someone, answers my question about the short cuts' global usage.
posted by Shouraku at 3:54 PM on June 19, 2013


In the UK, from 1973 to 1997, BBC Radio 4 had a weekly programme for and about the disabled, ironically entitled "Does he take sugar?".
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:15 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Re: regionalism- I'm also Australian, neither trolling nor senior, and I think it's rude. Perhaps it is a Detroit thing, but I suspect it's not so cut and dried.
posted by jojobobo at 3:34 AM on June 20, 2013


If I was in your example, I would find Abby rude. I should be the person regarded as the expert on what my favorite color is and I don't need anyone else answering for me. It doesn't matter if you used "she" or my first name. I don't at all understand what you mean by a linguistic short cut - this is from the East Coast of the US.

I've never heard of the "cat's mother" response, but in my family some one would respond with, "what, am I deaf, dumb, and blind?!" to being excluded from the conversation in this way. Though it would probably still be rude to be answering for Helen Keller instead of letting her sign for herself. There are exceptions, of course, if maybe Jake and Abby were quizzing each other on my favorite colors, or if Abby was sticking up for me because Jake was badgering me and asking me what my favorite color was for the zillionth time.
posted by fermezporte at 6:31 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


if Abby was sticking up for me

I think there is definitely this quality in the usage Shouraku is talking about. Not so much speaking FOR someone but chiming in with a comment that both echoes the first person's question and anticipates the third person's answer.
posted by torticat at 12:03 PM on June 21, 2013


A few days late but this is absolutely fascinating. As a midwestern/southern American brought up in a family where grammar and etiquette were very important - I was corrected on my manners, especially linguistically, incessantly until certain rules became ingrained habit - I've never heard anything about this.

Answering for someone when a question was directed at someone else - definitely rude, but under the guideline of "Don't interrupt" or "Don't cut someone off," the presumption being that the other person was about to answer when you interrupted by jumping in to say your piece. It's sort of a form of showboating or hogging the conversation and not letting others have space. Would be rude whether you used the pronoun he/she ("His favorite color is blue," "She told me it was blue."), the second person ("Your favorite color is blue, right?") or their name ("Mary said her favorite color was blue.")

But most of these other examples - "As she told you" in a meeting, or grandma's meatballs or Uncle Emilio and the racetrack - just don't register as rude for me at all.

Excluding people from the conversation is rude. And acting like someone isn't there (not looking at them, positioning your body to cut them out of the group, only addressing the one person of highest status in the group) is rude. But using this sentence construction doesn't strike me as rude, and I'm sure I do it all the time.
posted by amaire at 10:56 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Update:

I stopped using this sentence construction, since it seems that many people find it rude. It was a bit difficult to train myself out of, since it's so widely used around me, but I believe that I've been pretty successful.

Thank you all for your help!
posted by Shouraku at 4:23 PM on November 22, 2013


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