Consider the way people dish out advice: Someone might tell you, “You can’t always get what you want.” Another might say, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Comments like these seem designed to offer help to the listener, but scientists say they reveal underlying issues on the speaker’s end, too. A backlog of negative experiences, they say, could be lurking behind their use of the “generic you.”

The “generic you” is the “you” we use as a synonym for “people in general.” It was the focus of a new study, published today (with a podcast!) in Science, that investigated when people use it and why. Turns out that it’s actually a really common verbal tic, which made it all the more linguistically intriguing: Why is it so persistent in our vocabulary?

“We observe that people seemed to be using generic ‘you’ when they were talking about themselves, and often times about really deeply personal negative events,” lead author Ariana Orvell, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, told Inverse. “That seemed like a really interesting puzzle to us.”

By asking participants to recall negative events, she managed to solve it.

Orvell found that the "generic you" isn't just a quirk of the English language.
Orvell found that the "generic you" isn't just a quirk of the English language.

She began her experiments with the hunch that the generic you was more common in discussions of certain negative, difficult events. In the first round, her objective was to test whether generic you was used to express norms, she explains. So, she asked either of two questions: “What should you do with hammers?” or “What do you like to do with hammers?” As expected, the first question elicited answers like “You do this or that” more than the second, which told her that “people favored using generic you over ‘I’ if they were asked questions that got them to think about norms or rules for behavior,” she says.

Then, she wondered, would the same hold true for statements about emotions? First, she analyzed data from a previous study where participants were asked to write first-hand accounts of either neutral or negative experiences, and she found that 56 percent of people writing about rough times used the “generic you” while only 6 percent of people recalling neutral events did. Analysis of a follow-up study confirmed it: When participants were asked to either relive a negative experience or write about the lessons they learned from a negative experience, they used the generic you much more often in the latter scenario.

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“A lot of the statements that people generated had this proverbial flavor to them,” Orvell says, noting that some 40 percent of common English proverbs use the generic you. “They seemed to be creating these broader rules or morals, even, to draw meaning from their experience.”

The ubiquity of the generic you, the results suggest, reflects the pervasiveness of the human desire to make sense of bad experiences. “When we get people in this kind of meaning-making mindset, they’re motivated to try and understand what happened to them,” Orvell says. “One way that people often do that is by putting their situation within a broader context, extending it beyond the self, and generic you seems to be a really powerful lever that allows people to do that and get some distance from their negative experience.”

Orvell hopes her findings will make us think twice the next time we hear — or dish out — proverb-like advice. If someone says, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” they might not just be offering a friendly reminder to make backup plans; they might also be sorting out their own experiences with bad and overzealous investment. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about if it’s a habit of your own; Orvell points out that we all do it, so we should just “embrace it.”

“What I think is really cool is that this seems to be something that is woven into our language that people draw on spontaneously,” she says. “It seems to be something we all do to communicate with others and also to try to work through our own negative experiences.”

Photos via Carla Schaffer / AAAS, Flickr / Mike Burns