Who is You?

Posted by Doc
Mar 24 2009

When I was in my teens, my brother David (two years older) was beginning college. He came home from school one day and said that he’d learned one lesson that he really liked: when I’m talking about myself, I should say “I” not “you”.

You know what I mean, don’t you?

Someone asks a question, and I say “Well, you know, when you do [whatever] you feel [some way] and then you [do something].” How come if I’m talking about me I keep saying “you”?

This ties back to IAAM, of course.

If I say “I”, then I’m taking ownership of the good and the bad. Whereas if I say “you” I’m sharing it with – well – everyone. And if everyone says this or does this or feels this way, then it must be okay, right?

You know – when you admit how you feel, and maybe you’re not altogether proud of feeling that way, then if you make it seem as if it’s a common way to feel then you feel better, right?

Oh, wait.  Look at what I just did.  Let’s see how it sounds if I say…

You know – when I admit how I feel, and maybe I’m not altogether proud of feeling that way, then if I make it seem as if it’s a common way to feel then I feel better, right?

Does it feel different to you, too? The first one distances the whole issue from me, and allows me to feel safer. The second one makes it very personal, and I feel vulnerable and exposed.


Have you noticed this about yourself or those around you? That when you/they are talking about yourself/themselves, you realize that you/they always say it as if it’s not really about them?

Yeah, that’s the safe way.

If it’s you, maybe you should think about taking ownership of your stuff, and saying “I” instead of “you”. Then, when you’re communicating with your team, your family, or your friends, they will be dealing with the real you, not the generalized-safe-it’s-not-just-me version of you.

And then send a nice thank you note to my brother David in Melbourne. 😉

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4 Responses

  1. Cory Foy says:

    Great post, Doc. I stumbled on this pattern some time back, and I find it helps not only me feel more vulnerable, but makes no doubt that I’m really not projecting something onto the person I’m talking to. Many situations are diffused before they even start just because I’m willing to be vulnerable in how I choose to communicate.

  2. Chris Matts says:

    Now consider what the British Royal Family would say….

    You know – when one admits how one feels, and maybe one is not altogether proud of feeling that way, then if one makes it seem as if it’s a common way to feel then one feels better, right?

    “I” is owning the statement.

    “You” is seeking empathy.

    “One” is plain lacking in humanity.

    As an aside. If “You” is opposite of “I”, then “Zero” is the opposite of “One”…. My god, they are Cylons!

    • Doc says:

      Simply and eloquently said. Thank you.

    • I disagree: one is a gender neutral, third-person singular pronoun we’re beginning to lose in English but is alive and well in other languages (French ‘on’, German ‘man’, Spanish ‘uno’).

      It is a very useful word which fits well in this topic as it is a further distance from you and therefore less personal (not a formal use of the first-person as many mistake it for). We have developed the habit of using “you” instead of “one”. Consider the following examples:

      • Every program you write you will get it wrong.
      • Every program one writes one will get it wrong.

      The first example can be easily mistaken for an accusation, the second is clearly a maxim.

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