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The word “you” is one of the most simple and commonly used words in the English language. With its primary use is to address a specific person, it is also used in broader ways, such as when someone is referring to him/herself or a concept in the third person.

By this, “you” can be used to talk about people as a whole, particularly when it comes to idioms. For example, “you win some, you lose some,” and “you can’t always get what you want.” In this sense, the word is being used to discuss the general population instead of one specific person; this is what is known as the generic-you. 

Despite the fact that this word is so common in our everyday language, the reasons why we use different types of “you” has not been studied enough in depth. Arianna Orwell (of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) and her team of researchers came up with a range of experiments to investigate in more detail why we use the “generic-you,” and gain a better understanding of when it is used and what it means for the user. As she and her team explain;

“Here, we suggest that generic-you is a linguistic mechanism that people use to make meaning from human experience – to derive insights that extend beyond the self – and that it does so by expressing norms.”

In the first of their three experiments, participants in the study were asked “you” questions that had been worded slightly differently in each case. For example, people in the general condition were asked, “what should you do with hammers?” Whereas those in the personal condition were asked, “what do you like to do with hammers?” In this first round of experiments, the team found that in the general condition, people were more likely to use the generic-you to discuss general normalities of something than when they were talking about personal preferences. Therefore, the use of the generic-you was much more likely to occur when a person was asked, “when should you wear a shirt?” over “when do you like to wear shirts?”

But what about dealing with negative experiences and the word “you?”

In the second part of the study, the participants were asked to either write about a neutral life experience or a negative life event. They found that only 6 percent of the neutral group used the generic-you, but 56 percent of people writing about the negative life experience opted for the generic-you. Following this experiment, two groups of participants were asked to write about a personal negative experience. In addition to this, one of these groups was then prompted as to what they could learn from this negative experience.

The latter group, who were asked to write about what they could learn from such a negative life event, were found to employ the usage of the generic-you term significantly more often. The researchers gathered that by the participants choosing to use the generic-you, they were able to distance themselves from the negative experience. By using the generic-you, they are speaking about themselves not as an individual but as a part of society as a whole.

For the final part of their study, the researchers specifically asked participants to write about a negative experience using the generic-you or “I.” The group who were tasked to use the generic-you reported feeling much more psychologically distanced from those who were asked to use “I.”

The researchers feel that using the generic-you “may constitute a central way that people derive meaning from their emotional experiences in daily life,” and that “together, these findings demonstrate how language is structured to facilitate the process of making meaning from one’s experiences.” Further research into the surprising complexity and emotional importance of this simple word is expected to continue.

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