Andy Stokes 2011
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Joan Didion – The year of magical thinking
During the early part of my counselling training, one of the first things we looked at was the use of language, and the thing that struck me, and which I hadn’t really previously consciously registered or appraised, was the tendency in modern British society, to use the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’ as a replacement for ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
The emphasis on awareness of this aspect of use of language in my training came from the Gestalt therapy tradition. The processes of Projection and Introjection are fundamental to Gestalt – projection being ‘the tendency to make the environment responsible for what originates in the self‘ and introjection the opposite – ‘the tendency to make the self responsible for what actually is part of the environment‘ (because of projections we have ourselves received). An introject, in other words, is someone else’s projection directed at me (that I have internalised).
I was fascinated on reading Fritz Perls ‘Gestalt Theory Verbatim’, to find the exploration of the emotional content of dreams facilitated by the client being asked to take on on each aspect of the components of the dream (whether inanimate or living) and talking in the first person from the point of view of that item of the dream’s structure. For example, if I had a dream that featured a table, Perls would have asked me to retell the dream from the table’s perspective. “I am solid, I sit on the floor, people put things on top of me….”.
This seemed like a very powerful tool and made complete sense to me, recognising that all of my dream and the elements in it are constructs of my psyche, so every aspect reflects and expresses some part of myself. It makes complete sense to me to ‘own’ each element, instead of relating it as though I exist amongst third-party objects (‘them’). It also seems to make for a much more profound and personal way of experiencing the dream during the telling.
It is less clear, but still apparent, that in my everyday life I see other people through a screen of my own projections, and that there is value in me holding these up to the light and ‘owning’ these, taking responsibility for them, and seeing what is uncovered about myself in this process.
‘You’- my feelings at a distance…
The use of the second-person pronoun ‘You’ as a replacement for the first-person ‘I’ & ‘Me’ occurs all the time around me and in the media – when ordinary people are discussing their experiences, they often use this form. For instance, I caught a bit of a documentary about a morbidly obese young woman, who was about to have a stomach band fitted. The beginning of a segment where she was interviewed pretty much went like this:
“Well, I‘ve been big since I was a young girl. You get treated really badly – people call you names all the time, and you end up getting really depressed about it – you don’t feel like going out. Sometimes you even feel suicidal…” … and so on.
After the first use of the ‘I’ pronoun, she went on to talk about her mistreatment, her unhappiness and suicide attempts, and her impending life-threatening operation, all without using the personal pronoun – all speaking in the second person – as if it were happening to someone else. She projected the experience away from herself and in the direction of the person or people listening to her – the interviewer, the TV audience and myself, as if in some strange form of voodoo, she could have us take away the burden so she didn’t have to face it or feel it herself…
As I have become aware of this verbal habit, I have come across it more and more, and found myself and the people around me using it lots of the time. It seems particularly likely to get used when, as in the case above, people (including myself!) are touching on something personal, private and potentially painful or carrying a weight of emotion.
In the case of the young woman being interviewed for TV, I can perfectly easily understand this as an attempt to introduce some distance for herself from what must be extremely painful emotions, which she presumably didn’t feel safe enough to express directly with immediacy and expose to a TV crew (and potentially, a TV audience).
It seems so prevalent in society generally though, that I can’t help thinking that it is not just with TV crews that people have difficulty expressing their emotions – it seems to me that many of us, myself included, have very little framework in everyday life, and in our everyday language, to deal with emotional and personal content in our conversations with those around us, and must therefore resort to this verbal trickery to avoid it. I certainly have a tendency to slip into this mode of talking about myself if I do not pay careful attention to what I am saying.
‘One’ to ‘You’ – reflecting changing attitudes to class in our society
The use of this particular form of distancing ourselves from our emotion in speech is on the increase and seems relatively recent to me – I don’t remember hearing it much when I was young. It seems to have originated amongst working class people, but now seems to be used by people across the class spectrum.
Using pronouns other than ‘I’ is not however a new phenomena – until recent times, the word ‘one’ was used whenever anything personal or potentially emotive (and therefore uncomfortable and outside the lexicon of the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the English aristocracy) was being discussed by middle-class and owning class people – it seems to be currently in decline – so much so that I was surprised and struck when I am across it in a recent Guardian article written by an elderly middle class woman:
“At every visit (to an older friend) there was a nerve-racking wait – was she dragging herself precariously to the door, or had she fallen, in which case she couldn’t get up? More and more often it was the latter, whereupon one prayed that her neighbours were in, and would support one through the anxious moment of finding the crumpled heap on the floor and sorting it out…”
Extract from ‘How can I perform an act which amounts to self-destruction?’ Dianna Athill – Guardian Magazine 17/04/10
Embedded in a text where the author was, the rest of the time writing happily in the first person, this fearful vision (that she presumably could not bear to relive, even in writing), caused her to throwback to a more detached, and genteel form of language.
The reason the use of the word ‘one’ is no longer popular, and has been largely superseded by the more prosaic ‘you’, seems to me to be because it is no longer desirable to be seen as ‘upper class’ in this so-called, ‘classless’ society we now inhabit – it is more likely to provoke sarcasm and resentment than cap-doffing deference nowadays. I certainly had a strong negative reaction when I encountered it (as a person of working class origins).
Interestingly, though class-weighted, the older use of the word ‘one’ to represent ‘I’ is at least an abstract replacement – a universal unspecified person – unlike the use of the word ‘you’, it is not directed at anyone specific – there is no projection of the emotional content being attempted here (presumably it would be far too impolite!).
Are You out there? Community of shared experience
The use of ‘you’, as well as being inherently less grammatically correct than ‘one’ (this is by definition of it being a ‘common’ form – the grammar of the language has been defined in public schools and Oxbridge), also has this extra connotation of projection. In the original example, if taken literally, the speaker is telling me that I am depressed, I am developing agrophobia, I am even feeling suicidal!
As listener (at some level, however unconscious), I am being forced to evaluate my own reaction instead of being able to listen and pay attention to what the speaker is saying – either I respond ‘Yes that’s true – I do feel depressed and agrophobic (at which point I am probably decreasing in my ability to listen to her woes), or I decide that these are not my feelings and am at best confused, at worst angry that she is trying to offload them on me.
It seems to me that this highlights another aspect to the way way that the word is used – as an attempt to generalise our experience – to project common ground with others. There is an implicit prefix of : “I am sure like me you find…” or “You know…?”
I use this form (and I hear others using it) as a way of proposing, or asking if other people have the same thoughts, feelings and experiences as myself.
These are projections, but done to break through a feeling of isolation, to establish some commonality of experience with the rest of society. If you share my experience of the world in some way, then I am less alone in it.
It seems like an attempt to co-opt you into my world (or project me into yours)…
Do you know what I mean?
Can You tell me I’m OK?
As well as an attempt to identify commonality with others, it is possibly also a way of asking for validation of my experience – Is it OK for me to have this feeling (since you feel it too)?
(Or possibly in-validation – should I ignore this feeling as it is part of the common human condition and therefore something I just have to accept…?)
This is the resonance much literature, art and music have for me. When I am moved by a work – it is because it holds up to the light (projects) in some way some experience, feeling or thought that I have shared.
As well as communicating my connection to the artist by virtue of this shared experience, it also validates my experience. By virtue of being made into a focus, an object worthy of respect, it engrandises and legitimises my experience – I feel that this part of me may be important and significant and worthy of attention – not irrelevant and inconsequential.
It has been an interesting and valuable experience questioning all these implicit projections and raising them to a conscious level. It has helped me identify what it is exactly I am trying to do in a particular sentence – Hide from emotional content? Seek reassurance? Find out if I am not alone with my experience?
Owning my talk has allowed me to begin to identify and ask the appropriate question consciously and clearly with profound results.
Another example of use of ‘you’ to distance from feeling/owning that struck me was in the Sept 10th 2010 Guardian – an interview with Sinead O’Connor, where she is describing her struggle with suicidal thoughts and diagnosis as bipolar:
Will she always have to be on drugs? “Yes, but that is great as far as I’m concerned. Because you couldn’t really live without them, you’d be in the nuthouse. Being diagnosed meant I actually had a chance of being a normal person.”
…to own the whole of this paragraph, as opposed to just the opening and closing sentences, and say ‘I couldn’t really live without them, I’d be in the nuthouse’… must have been just too painful to do in front of an unknown journalist for national publication.
“Thou” versus “You” – English objectivity (and Class War)
I’d like to revisit the use of the word ‘You’ from a different perspective (it seems like a multi-purpose word in our language). ‘Thou’ was originally used in English as a singular form, when addressing one person, and usually implying a close relationship, whereas ‘You’ was the plural – for speaking to several people. English speakers are now left with pretty much only one way of addressing others – one or many, close or distant – and that is with the word ‘you’.
I am interested to know if this change of use of the second-person pronoun occurs in other languages as well as English. My suspicion is that we are more prone to this than other languages.
English is a language that promotes dis-identification (‘objectivity; as opposed to ‘subjectivity’) and detachment, by virtue of the fact that it has pretty much lost this personal, second person pronoun, ‘thou’, in modern speech and writing, which was more intimate and therefore subjective. It has been entirely replaced by ‘you’, which because it is also the plural form, can apply to a multitude – a potentially faceless crowd.
It is interesting that the intimate form has been retained in the more ’emotional’, warmer climates of Italian, French, Spanish etc. – the English are seen as being colder, less emotional, and less passionate, a product of inclement weather (and possibly the unemotional numbness required to maintain an oppressive empire over hundreds of years – the ‘stiff upper lip’…?)
Is our society’s coldness reflected in our language? Or has our language affected us?
In the centuries after the Norman invasion, English society slowly adopted the French habit of using the plural form, ‘you’ when addressing people in positions of power. This plurality associated with rulers and monarchs has been around for a long time, in many cultures, and survives in English with the use of the ‘Royal We’, which was used by the queen in my memory, not so long ago. The plural form began to be used as a singular in this context – entailing respect and distance. The singular conversely therefore, took on a more intimate nature, being used towards everyone else – children, family, friends and lovers – it implies a positive, caring emotional connection or responsibility towards the other. It is still used in this way in many European languages, including French.
So ‘you’ became associated with respect – in the middle ages and medieval England, the owning class would address their servants as ‘thou’, and be in turn addressed by them as ‘you’. The word thou therefore also became associated with subjugation – presumably potentially seen as patronising by the recipient.
After the English Civil war with the overthrow of the monarchy (albeit temporarily!), and the establishment of a more egalitarian society, the term ‘thou’, which had become associated with disrespectful inequality, began to go out of fashion, and the more respectful ‘you’ took it’s place.
This process continued throughout the following centuries, till by the 18th the ‘thou’ form was practically gone from most of England, though it was still retained in the more heterogeneously working class North – away from the seat and focus of power and visible class inequality.
Being English – a liability?
This means that as a culture, and almost uniquely (though the Dutch are having a similar problem) we English speaking people, have lost the intimacy of expression we once had – thou, thee and thine – a full stable of singular and intimate 2nd person pronouns, have disappeared almost completely from everyday use, and we are left with the more respectful, but distanced, ‘you’ as an all-purpose tool.
In recent times, other European languages have tended the other way – towards adopting the familiar, informal pronoun and dropping the formal (plural) form – a warmer, more friendly direction, in my opinion.
Still, I find it interesting that though German has retained the ‘thou’ form in ‘du’, their respectful form is actually the same word for ‘they’ (Sei), the third person, as opposed to the second. It is as though there is even more distance from other’s outside the speaker’s close group – strangers are pushed even further away and separated from me. In German, I would assume that ‘I-It’ is not so far from ‘I-They/you’ in terms of distance from, and objectivity towards other people (This also highlights to me just how radical the emphasis is in Martin Buber’s ‘I-thou’ (Ich und Du) relationship from his perspective as a German-speaker).
I think that the language that is spoken by a people, reflects and perhaps even guides the cultural development of those that speak it – our language structures and words shaping and influencing our thoughts as they do.
For instance, I feel that the accelerating loss of intimacy from the English language around the time that the ‘British’* Empire was being built, is no coincidence. I think that in order that sufficient distance be maintained from the people it was subjugating, it was important that the rulers felt disconnected from the subject peoples, and perhaps the lack of intimate connection in our language reflects this, or could even have enabled it…
* really ‘English’, since Scotland, Ireland & Wales were the first nations to be subjugated as part of it…