Thursday 23 February 2012

What does 'you' mean?

“you can see this picture…something to look at and then you’d imagine you were inside that picture walking away through the trees”

Looking at interviews of women recounting their experience of being treated for breast cancer, Lesley Stirling and Lenore Manderson (2011) looked at how women, in such emotionally charged discourse, employed the use of generalised you compared to other pronouns, and what implications this had on the discourse.

The focus of the paper is an interview with a woman they call Glenda (who knew the interviewer from previous work together). In the example above, Glenda talks about how she would look at a picture on the wall while undergoing radiotherapy. Although she is talking about her own experience, and could have said I’d imagine I was inside that picture, she uses generalised you, and in this way draws the hearer into her own perspective.

Through the analysis of Glenda’s descriptions of what she went through (from diagnosis to her recovery after the mastectomy), Stirling and Manderson looked at how generalised you is used to signify certain membership categories, which may or may not include the addressee. 

In (1) Glenda situates herself as a member of a group (i.e. those who have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer) which excludes the addressee. In this way she makes her story more authoritative.

(1) I took off my shirt and my – the bra that I had on and the prosthesis that they give you

However, in (2) below, talking about a medical check-up after giving birth, she aligns herself with the category ‘mother’ and, knowing that the interviewer is also a member of this group, is able to draw the interviewer into the dialogue and get support to authenticate her points (which comes when the  interviewer overlaps with yeah)

(2) Glenda: you know when you have to go back to antenatal for 
                      [your] check up,

     Interviewer: [yeah]

Stirling and Manderson also examine how Glenda switches between I and generalised you when reporting direct personal thoughts, especially when they are highly emotional negative ones. In (3) she is talking about how frightened she felt when she looked down at her chest after surgery. She repairs her self-including generalised you with the self-referencing I:

(3)  and thinking oh you know all the women around you who had two breasts you know, had nice breasts, you’d be always- I’d be always looking

In conclusion, Stirling and Manderson note that, in the narration of personal experience, generalised you, as opposed to I, allows the speaker to talk in detail about an experience while maintaining distance (especially if the experience is complex and/or traumatic).  They also observe that speakers need to use mechanisms which give validation and credibility to what is being said. One way of doing this is for the speaker to align themselves with a particular membership category, which shows that they have the right to comment and discuss certain issues. However, another way is to recruit or align the audience, using you to include an addressee in an activated membership category.

Stirling, Lesley and Manderson, Lenore (2011) About you: Empathy, objectivity and authority. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 1581-1602.
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.12.002

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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