Using the Word “You” to Generalize is a Coping Mechanism

Fagjun | Published 2017-03-25 06:03

We need to externalize negative experiences in order to make sense of them and find meaning in them.
[Photo by Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes]

People use the general “you” as a coping mechanism and a way to externalize and generalize negative personal experiences.

Think about certain idioms or general advice that people give to each other. “You win some, you lose some.” “You take what you can get.” Also: “you don't know what you have until you've lost it.”

The phrasing of these sentences is impersonal, detached, and generalizing. However, there is an undercurrent of personal experience in these sentences. People who say them have indeed won some and lost some, taken what they can get, and lost something they never knew they had.

Externalization as a Coping Mechanism

Of course, the “you” in these sentences don't actually refer to the person the speaker is addressing. The “you” here is the “general you”, which refers to people in general and not a single particular person. Using the general you is a coping mechanism, and a way to externalize and de-personalize a negative experience.

A new study explores why people use the general you to reflect on their own personal experiences. The researchers ran nine experiments with 2,489 participants to get to the bottom of the general you.

The first round of experiments tested the use of the general you when expressing generalities or norms. The researchers asked one of these two questions: “What should you do with hammers?” or “What do you do like to do with hammers?” The participants responded to the first question with general you statements, indicating that they preferred to use the general you in statements regarding rules or norms.

In the next round of experiments, the researchers asked the participants to write about their negative experiences. 198 participants had to relive a negative event, 201 had to find meaning in a negative event, and 203 had to write about a neutral experience. 10% of the first group used the general you at least once, while 46% of the second group used the word at least once. Only 3% of the neutral group used the general you.

According to the researchers, the use of the word functions as a coping mechanism. It helps the users distance themselves from a negative, possibly painful personal experience by taking the personal out of it. "We suspect that it's the ability to move beyond your own perspective to express shared, universal experiences that allows individuals to derive broader meanings from personal events," says Ariana Orvell, one of the researchers.

From the Personal to the Proverbial

The participants seemed to turn the expression of their personal experiences into something idiomatic or even proverbial. Idioms and proverbs are generic and impersonal, but people can draw meaning and lessons from them. Thus, the participants may be processing their personal experiences as something to learn from.

The researchers say that these findings may make us think deeper about how we express our experiences as a coping mechanism. There's nothing wrong with using the “general you”; we all do it and it can be beneficial in coping with negative experiences. However, next time we hear someone phrase something this way, we can be more understanding of where they're coming from.

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