How “you” makes meaning

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Science  24 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6331, pp. 1299-1302
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj2014

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Using “you” to generalize from me to others

Sometimes “you” is used when addressing another person, but in many situations, “you” is used to indicate anyone or everyone—the generic “you.” Orvell et al. studied the underlying psychological function of the generic “you.” When asked to write about a past negative experience, people were more likely to distance themselves and derive meaning from the experience if tasked with using the generic “you” rather than the first-person pronoun “I.”

Science, this issue p. 1299


“You” is one of the most common words in the English language. Although it typically refers to the person addressed (“How are you?”), “you” is also used to make timeless statements about people in general (“You win some, you lose some.”). Here, we demonstrate that this ubiquitous but understudied linguistic device, known as “generic-you,” has important implications for how people derive meaning from experience. Across six experiments, we found that generic-you is used to express norms in both ordinary and emotional contexts and that producing generic-you when reflecting on negative experiences allows people to “normalize” their experience by extending it beyond the self. In this way, a simple linguistic device serves a powerful meaning-making function.

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