When I Say “You” But Really Mean “Me”

In some cases, the use of the second-person pronoun could help us put distance between ourselves and negative emotions

Sometimes when we say "you," we really mean "me" (RooM the Agency / Alamy)
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“You can’t always get what you want.”

“You can’t be too careful around there.”

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

As the above phrases show, “you” doesn’t always refer to you, the person I’m speaking to. The second-person pronoun can also take a broader meaning, referring to a "generic" person doing or saying or being something. In linguistics, this "generic you" refers to the use of the word "you" to mean an unspecified "someone" or "one," as opposed to the person being addressed.

But like much of our speech, this little pronoun could actually reflect something deeper: Research in recent years has shown that seemingly insignificant word choices can potentially reveal insights about a person's background and personality. And in some cases, using the word “you” could actually serve as an insulator from negative or traumatic emotions when talking about past experiences, according to a psychology study published Friday in the journal Science.

In recent years, Ariana Orvell, a social psychology student at the University of Michigan, noticed that participants in psychology studies conducted in her lab tended to use this seemingly "simple word" often, and in myriad different ways. Sometimes, they even used it to refer to themselves. "We thought it was kind of a curious puzzle as to why people would use that we typically think of addressing specific others to refer to themselves and their own experiences," she says.

To dig in this puzzle, Orvell and her collaborators designed a series of experiments to study where this tendency might stem from.

Their first set of experiments looked specifically at social norms—the behaviors and traits considered acceptable or not by society for a certain person. About 200 participants recruited randomly online were asked questions in two basic structures: one designed to elicit an answer about the "norm" for an action or object ("What should you do with hammers?") and one designed to get at the person's preferences ("What do you like to do with hammers?")

The researchers found that participants were significantly more likely to use "generic you" when they were speaking about the "norm" for something than when they were speaking about their own personal preference. About 50 percent of responses speaking to the “norm” contained a use of “generic you” compared to less than 10 percent of the responses speaking to the preference.

The researchers next set out to test whether people unconsciously use the "generic you" to "normalize" a negative experience based on results from previous research done by some of the team on “meaning-making” from negative experiences. They asked roughly 200 more randomly recruited participants to recall a negative experience from their life, and then write lessons that that could be taken from it.

Another group of the study participants were asked to recall about an emotionally neutral life experience, and also find a lesson in that. A third group was asked to simply recall a negative experience without making a lesson from it.

The people trying to extract meaning from their negative emotional experiences were much more likely to use "generic you" in the lessons they created, Orvell says. Of that group, 46 percent used “you” at least once in their responses, compared to just 10 percent in the recall-only group and only 3 percent in the neutral group.

"'Generic you' was really coming online when they were trying to make meaning of their negative experience," Orvell says. This could reflect the people putting "psychological distance" between themselves and their traumatic experience—in essence, trying to shield themselves from negative emotions. Some of the lessons given demonstrate this: “Sometimes people don’t change, and you have to recognize that you cannot save them”; “when you are angry, you say and do things that you will most likely regret”; and “pride is something that can get in the way of your happiness.”

Mark Sicoli, an anthropological linguist at the University of Virginia, says this research has great potential for helping people work through traumatic experiences and mourning in therapy. "Across these experiments the findings are robust and show us not only how language can evoke feelings and affect the way we remember events, but also how choosing ways to talk about negative experience can help us frame and reframe the experience," says Sicoli, who was not involved in the study.

Sicoli says he hopes to see more research into this phenomenon in languages other than English and looking at actual communication between two people as well as comparing "generic you" to the uses of other pronouns such as "one," "they," and even the "royal we." For her part, Orvell says she plans to look at children to see when and how the use of "generic you" develops in people. "This work gives us much to think about," Sicoli says.

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