Let's take the example of "I" versus "you".
#1: "It's not my fault I ran from the dragon."
#2: "You'd run from the dragon, too."
Both say the same thing (although the second one is implied that the speaker ran), but have very different effects. Think about how each one makes you feel about the speaker, and what kind of relationship is implied in the address. In #1, the speaker's words could be interpreted as whining, because the speaker is obviously assigning blame away from him//herself. But in example #2, The use of "you" bridges a gap in the words, bringing the audience into the scene with the speaker: running isn't just something the speaker did, it's something anyone would do, even you, yes you, dear reader. While "It's not my fault I ran from the dragon" communicates what the speaker did in a direct way, the second phrasing is much more personal, and communicates a lot more about how the speaker feels. Because "it's not my fault, anyone would do it" is implied, it automatically feels a lot more personal and sympathetic to the reader.
There is a reason we communicate this way which shapes how we think about ourselves and how we interpret the world. When we use "I" statements about our actions, it assigns the blame (or responsibility, or credit) for the way we act directly to ourselves. When when replace the first person with the second person "you," we are preparing the listener for forgiveness by asking for the audience to project themselves into our positions. It elicits sympathy and asks for empathy, which can be either good or bad.
"I didn't mean to hit that black cat. But you have to admit it's pretty hard to see at night."
"I took it for granted that she would just be around to take care of me. You see someone everyday like that, you just kind of start to assume they will be around, you know?"
More dangerously, in victims (or imagined victims), the "I" versus "you" can effect powerful changes in how they view the world and their position within it. Dr. Karl Albrecht, in a recent article which inspired this post, writes:
Former actress Robin Givens, interviewed for a recent Time magazine article about partner abuse by celebrity athletes, described her experience of being beaten by heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Her choice of words reveals a verbal pattern that’s one of the telltale markers for the mindset of powerlessness. In the conceptual realm of psychosemantics, it’s known as displacement—switching from I pronouns to you pronouns.
Note the alternation between the two patterns in her quotes:
“People ask why I didn’t leave after I was hit the first time. . . . But you feel such inner turmoil and confusion. You want it to be only one time.”
“And for three days after that incident I did the right thing. I said, ‘Don’t call me. I never want to see you again.’ . . . . But then you start taking his phone calls. Then he asks to see you in person, and you say yes to that. Then you have a big giant man crying like a baby on your lap, and next thing you know, you’re consoling him.”
The pronoun switching, typically unconscious, has the effect of priming the listener’s forgiveness, by projecting the inclination for the same self-defeating behavior upon the listener. “You might have done the same thing,” the syntax implies; “it wasn’t my fault.” This is a fairly typical psychosemantic maneuver of abdication—surrendering the authority and responsibility to act in one’s own self-interest.
Listen to people who have power in and over their lives, and compare the language they use to the language of those who, for whatever reason, may feel disempowered. You’re likely to hear two subtly different narratives. One is the narrative of cause and effect. The other, figuratively, is the narrative of “effect and cause.”
These examples show clearly how words really are a choice: whether in your own lives or your writing. So I hope you learned something interesting from this article like I did!