Sunday, September 01, 2019

It's not always about You

I make a point of not doing that thing when you talk in the second person when you're actually talking about yourself.

See what I did there?

If you didn't, be careful reading on because you might start seeing it a lot. Many people don't notice it when they hear it, much less out of their own mouths.

I remember when I first encountered this. It was in French class in about grade two, and the teacher was telling us about the different pronouns: je, tu, il/elle/on... "on". He had to explain to us the meaning of "on", the third person singular, which is common in French but obscure in English.

In English, the equivalent would be "one"; specifically, the third definition under the heading "pronoun" on Oxford's online definition of "one" (as in "one does not simply walk into Mordor"). Our French teacher tried describing this to us, but many of us seven year olds hadn't yet encountered it in English (or at least not that we'd recognized).

So he tried again, describing the generic "you". "you know how some people will say 'you always have to look both ways before crossing the street'" and I thought (particularly after having just been told that "tu" is for the second person) that that was such a peculiar way of saying things. Also, no, I hadn't encountered that either.

Clearly, I eventually caught on to the meaning of "one" and its distinctness from "you", as one does (or as you do), and I never let go of that feeling that said that this was a strange and unnecessary way of using "you" when there's a perfectly unambiguous alternative.

I don't remember when I started noticing people using the generic "you"; likely after I was exposed to Orwell's wonderfully succinct treatise Politics and the English Language in high school. And it was probably not so much when it was used as a replacement for "one"—which makes sense in context—as when the speaker bastardizes even the generic "you" in order to refer to their own behaviour.

I had a colleague who did it all the time. In a one-on-one conversation, she would be telling an anecdote and she'd say "So I do that thing where you always check your phone when getting on the bus..." instead of simply saying "I always check my phone when getting on the bus...". This would derail my train of thought, even though it was often an aside to her main point (e.g. "...and I realized this morning when I got on the bus that I forgot my phone at home"). Not only does she change from first person to second person in the middle of the sentence, but she's also describing—to me, in the point of view that refers to me—something that I don't do myself.

I'm sure there's something psychological about it, and I have a few theories:
- because you're describing something you do regularly you fall back on phrasing used for generic activities
- you'd feel awkward saying "I eat breakfast every morning" when the listener might get the impression you think you're the only one who does this common activity
- you don't want to say "I put milk on my oatmeal" in case the other person doesn't do it too, so you describe it as a general behaviour to normalize it, hopefully averting a conversation about whether or not it's normal to put milk on porridge.

Of course, the first two are situations where you could use "one", the pronoun specifically designed for this situation, and you were just too lazy to do so. The third situation reflects a lack of confidence—and it could even be aggressive!

Imagine you're in an office setting and a colleague is telling you an anecdote about chewing gum. In introducing the topic they describe "that thing where you chew gum really loudly in public..." You realize that you chew gum in the office, and maybe it's actually annoying your colleagues and this is their way of pointing it out to you. Forget the rest of their anecdote, you're not listening any more. Instead you're getting self-conscious. Is your loud gum-chewing so notorious around the office that your colleague can mention it so offhandedly? You didn't think you chewed your gum loudly... sorry, what was that last bit?

"... and then spit it out onto the sidewalk?" Oh, it wasn't about me. What a relief!

It can also be deliberately passive-aggressive by normalizing something that the listener should do, thus putting them down if they happen not to: "you know how you're not supposed to put two spaces after a period anymore because we no longer type in fixed-width fonts? Well anyway, I got a resume today where he put three!" (Some people still do put two spaces after a period, and yes, I'm calling it out!)

Orally, one's intonation can usually distinguish between the general "you know how you have two ears" and the specific "you know how you always leave the toilet seat up," but telling these apart can be harder in print. This has only gotten worse as people tend to write more the way they speak, but without the added contextual cues that come with spoken language.

There are other situations where the pronoun is dropped altogether. Sue Sherring did it a lot when she wrote for the Ottawa Sun, before it merged with the Citizen and she subsequently left. I didn't have to go far to find an example on her blog, in the most recent post. This is the full paragraph:
"Simply can’t think of a more appropriate name for a park honouring Rabbi Bulka."
Clearly in from the context, including that it's her personal blog, the pronoun would be "I". Regardless of that, both "you" or "one" would also fit in here and mean the same thing. But you can imagine situations where it's really not clear whether she's talking about herself or the article's subject (and you'll have to imagine them because I can't find any at the moment, even though I thought I had collected or emailed myself some samples that I can't find).

While this is sloppy style for a print newspaper, I've found myself having dropped the subject in jotted notes, which are by their nature somewhat sloppy. Later, I'd have difficulty figuring out whether, when I wrote "sent email", I meant that I sent an email to the person or they sent one to me. Sometimes during the slow parts of a meeting I'll reread the notes I've taken so far and I'll catch these while the context is still fresh in my mind, and squeeze in some clarifying additions.

Once at a summer camp, we had oatmeal for breakfast, and the toppings were making their rounds on the table. Brown sugar, for sure. The kid next to me put milk over his oatmeal (as I was accustomed to doing myself) and passed the milk jug to me. As I started to tilt the jug over my bowl, one of the other children called him out: "you put milk on your oatmeal?!?" and before a drop fell out I deftly moved the milk jug over to my empty glass, lest I repeat the apparent faux pas.

In retrospect, I could have defended him, but peer pressure is such a powerful thing when one is a child at a summer camp.

I suppose I could have replied, "yeah. You know how you put milk on oatmeal?"

- RG>