You is one of the most common words in the English language, but 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 — “the verbal equivalent of pointing to one’s audience,” say psychologists who study this. 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.
Source: Psychology Today