You is one of the most common words in the English language. Turns out you might be using it in ways you didn’t appreciate. Grammatically, you is a second-person pronoun used to refer to someone who is not, well, you. Psychologists who study this call it “the verbal equivalent of pointing to one’s audience.” But you is also a way of referring to people in general, as in “you win some, you lose some.” And a study just published in Science reveals that we use you in that generic way not only to express norms, but also to describe personal negative experiences. Doing so provides psychological distance and helps us find meaning in the hard things that happen to us.
Who knew a pronoun could carry so much weight? Not I.
The main difference between linguists and psychologists who study language is that the psychologists experiment. There was plenty of theory about how we use the generic you, but no one had formally tested them. That’s what psychologists Ariana Orvell, Ethan Kross and Susan Gelman at the University of Michigan set out to do. In a series of six experiments involving nearly 2,500 participants, they first established that people do, in fact, use the generic you to talk about general rules and expectations, such as what to do on a rainy day or how to use a hammer.
Given those results, the researchers predicted that people would also be more likely to use you generically as a way of normalizing difficult experiences. That’s exactly what they found. When participants were asked to write essays either about negative experiences or neutral topics, more than half of those writing about something upsetting used the generic you. Only 6.3 percent of those writing about something innocuous used it.
Next, some participants were told to recall an experience and write about lessons learned. Others were told to relive that experience in writing. Nearly half of the first group used you generically (e.g., “Sometimes people don’t change, and you have to recognize that you cannot save them”) compared to 10 percent of those reliving an experience, and 2.5 percent of a control group.
Finally, the researchers instructed participants to try to derive meaning from something that had happened to them. They explicitly told them to use either you or I. Those who used you reported significantly more psychological distance from the upsetting experience.
“When something upsetting happens, we really want to understand it,” says Orvell, the study’s lead author. “Using generic you to craft lessons a person can draw from experience allows them to achieve meaning or understand their experience.” She’s not yet sure if being explicit about pronouns or a gentler nudge is the best therapeutic strategy. Since so many people adopt a generic you spontaneously, she says, “we could tell them to think about lessons learned and how others could benefit.”
Surprisingly, this was not the only study examining the use of I and you to be published recently. Researchers led by psychology professor Megan Robbins of the University of California, Riverside listened in on a few days’ worth of conversation between 52 couples coping with breast cancer. In this study, more frequent use of I and me by the caretaking spouse and of you by the person with cancer was a sign of a healthier marriage. Robbins said of the personal pronoun, “It says a lot about the relationship during a trying time. It was an indicator that the couple thought of themselves as a team — not exclusively focusing on the patient.”
In both studies — UC Riverside’s using you specifically, and Michigan’s using it generically — it’s clear what a big role small words play not just in our language but in our psychological health. You probably hadn’t noticed. Even the researchers came away impressed. Says Orvell, “This work has really shown me how powerful pronouns are.”