Why people often use ‘you’ not ‘I’ to deal with negative experiences

"You win some, you lose some"

In a new Science study, researchers looked at why people often use “you” rather than “I” when discussing personal experiences. Ariana Orvell and colleagues from the University of Michigan conducted nine experiments with 2,489 people. They found that by using “you”, people were able to normalize the event and communicate that it could happen to anyone, for example, “you win some, you lose some”.

We spoke lead author Ariana Orvell to find out more.

ResearchGate: What made you want to investigate this?

Ariana Orvell: We observed that people paradoxically seemed to use “generic-you” (“you” that refers to people in general) when talking about their own personal experiences. We wanted to know more about why people would use a word that we typically use to address others, to refer to themselves, even as they reflected on personal events.

Given prior research linking generic noun phrases with norms (e.g. “Boys don’t cry”), we wondered whether people may be using generic-you to express norms about people, in general, across a variety of contexts. This was our starting point.

RG: What usage of “you” did you look at? Can you give an example?

Orvell: We looked at how people use the word “you” to refer to people in general (e.g. “You drink coffee in the morning”). This contrasts with how we typically think of using “you,” to refer to specific individuals (e.g. “How do you take your coffee?”).

More specifically, we examined how generic-you is used to express norms. This includes norms about common, everyday behaviors (e.g., “You swim at the pool;” “You wear pants”), as well as norms that relate to broader phenomena and express life lessons (e.g., “Sometimes, you realize that people don’t change and you cannot save them”).

RG: How did you evaluate how people use “you” in this context? What did you find?

Orvell: Going into this work, we were intrigued by the idea that people use generic-you to talk about deeply personal negative events. We suspected that using generic-you in this way might allow people to “normalize” their negative experiences by generalizing them beyond the self – by providing them with distance.

We tested this idea by first looking at whether people use generic-you to talk about norms—general expectations for how people should or do act—surrounding everyday contexts. We found that if we asked people what they should do with objects, for example, “What should you do with puzzles?” (vs. what they like to do with objects) they were much more likely to answer the norm-based questions using generic-you (e.g. “You put them together”).

In another study, we asked people identical questions (e.g. “How do you cook a turkey?”) but instructed them to answer based on “what should and should not be done” (i.e. norms) or “likes and dislikes” (i.e. preferences). Again, we found that people were much more likely to use “you” in response to the norms questions than the preferences questions.

We expected that generic-you may similarly express norms in a very different context: when people reflect on deeply personal negative events.

In the next set of studies, we demonstrated that using generic-you helps people make meaning out of their negative experiences. First, we showed that people are more likely to use generic-you when they try to make meaning out of negative experiences (vs. simply reliving them or reflecting on neutral events). Next, we demonstrated that using generic-you helps people make meaning by providing them with distance, that is, by allowing individuals to shift their experience away from the self and frame it as relevant to a larger group of people.

RG: What do you think the connection between the word “you” and finding meaning (vs. simply recounting) is?

Orvell: Literature suggests that people are motivated to make sense of their negative experiences and place them within a broader context. This contrasts with reliving negative events, where a person would introspect on what happened to them and how they felt. We think that using generic-you to reflect on difficult experiences allows people to “normalize” them, while simultaneously situating the experience outside of the self. By saying “Life is unexpected, and you have to be prepared to lose the things that are important to you” (rather than “Life is unexpected, and I have to be prepared to lose the things that are important to me”) a person is able to construct a broader “rule” surrounding their experience and cast it as a normative phenomenon that others can relate to. Expressing “lessons learned” in this general sense importantly allows people to take a step back, thus facilitating meaning-making.

RG: Has this research made you more aware of the way you think and communicate about past experiences yourself?

Orvell: Definitely. And not only in the context of negative experiences. My collaborators, (Ethan Kross and Susan Gelman) and I now “see” generic-you everywhere. A weekend rarely goes by when we haven’t emailed around a new example from a T.V show, interview, movie, or piece of literature. Of course, it’s been there the whole time. I also notice it when I’m talking to people. I think this is something that we all do; it helps us navigate our social world and the difficult and unexpected situations we inevitably face.

Featured image courtesy of Daniel Horacio Agostini.