November 27, 2017

Use “You” (Not “I” or “One” or “They”)

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

Persuasion is often a matter of overcoming barriers and, in the courtroom, those barriers can be very real. The wall of the jury box is a physical analogy for the differences in class, age, race, education, and many other factors that can separate the fact finders from the attorneys, the witnesses, and the parties. But beyond those demographic traits, distance can also be influenced by more subtle features of language. When the wording is dry, abstract, and depersonalized, it is more difficult to cross the bridge to jurors’ understanding. It’s better to be more direct. And in an audience context, nothing is more direct than “you.”

It is a habit of language that might go unnoticed. Am I saying, “It is understandable,” or am I saying, “You can understand it”? Am I asking what a “reasonable person” would expect, or am I asking what “You” would expect? Am I previewing “the jury’s deliberations,” or am I previewing “Your deliberations”? The word “you” is one of the most common words in the language. While it sometimes carries direct meaning, referring to the listener, at other times it is used to indicate to people in general. Referred to as the generic-you, it is captured in phrases like, “You win some, you lose some.” It is used to express norms or expectations about how things should be. That universalizing function of the generic-you makes it an important rhetorical tool. Some recent research (Orvell, Kross & Gelman, 2017) looked at its function and effect, and the results suggest that the generic-you should be one of the techniques trial lawyers use to break down the barriers for your jurors.

The Research: Why You? 

The article in Science magazine is fittingly titled, “How ‘You’ Makes Meaning.” The authors, psychology researchers from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, conducted six experiments exploring the conditions and effects of the use of generic-you. Hypothesizing that the form of reference, distinct from the first-person “I,” serves as “a way of expressing universal, shared experience,” the team created various online writing tasks. They found that participants were more likely to use the generic-you when writing about negative personal experiences, and in those situations, their use of a generic-you was associated with a greater tendency to derive meaning from the experience.

The lead author, Ariana Orvell, noted in a release carried by Psyblog, “When people use ‘you’ to make meaning from negative experiences, it allows them to ‘normalize’ the experience and reflect on it from a distance.” She continued, “We suspect that it’s the ability to move beyond your own perspective to express shared, universal experiences that allows individuals to derive broader meanings from personal events.” In the article, the researchers conclude, “That generic-you is recruited at such high rates in this context suggests that this linguistic device may constitute a central way that people derive meaning from their emotional experiences in daily life.”

The task of deriving meaning from experience, of course, doesn’t just apply to our own life, it also applies to the lives we evaluate. In the courtroom, for example, a jury is searching for a way to give meaning to the negative events that gave rise to the case in the first place. In that situation, the use of “you” can help jurors relate.

What About the ‘Golden Rule’? 

Objection-prone attorneys, at this point, might be thinking about the problem of the “golden rule” argument, defined as an improper personal appeal to the jury. Justice Heaney of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals wrote in Lovett v Union Pacific, the “Golden Rule argument asks the jury to place itself in the defendant’s position.” He continues, “Such an argument is universally condemned because it encourages the jury to depart from neutrality and to decide the case on the basis of personal interest and bias rather than on the evidence.”

That objection, however, applies to a direct and explicit request to the jury to stand in a party’s shoes. The linguistic use of “you” is more subtle and wouldn’t create an automatic ‘golden rule’ objection. This is especially the case when “you” is used in the generic sense: It applies generally, but as the research shows, jurors are also likely to derive personal meaning from it. Ultimately, it should be relatively safe to use “you” as long as you are not explicitly inviting your jurors to take your client’s perspective.

So When Should You Use “You”? 

For the practical persuader, it helps if you make it a habit. But here are a few situations where “you” makes the most sense.

Whenever You Want to Make Your Language More Concrete

If the content itself poses a challenge, the use of “you” is going to help at least a little in bringing it down to earth. In calculating an oil and gas royalty payment, for example, “First, you determine the point where the fuel is marketable — the point where you could sell it to a willing buyer, then you deduct…”

Whenever You Want the Jury to Identify

When you want to imply a particular perspective, but without making a golden rule argument, the “you” helps. “So, let’s say a consumer buys this product. You take it home, you look at the instructions, and the first question on your mind is, ‘How do I use this?'”

Whenever You Would Otherwise Say “One” 

The grammarians would probably say that the correct way to make a generic reference is to say, “one,” as in, “one wonders what the motive could be.” But if there is a better way to sound stuffy and abstract, one doesn’t know what that would be. If you’re referring to people in general, you’re better off just saying, “you.”

Whenever you would otherwise say, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” 

Finally, “you” is an ideal replacement for that overused and distancing phrase, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” Replacing that with a simple “you” is more personal. Unlike the other examples, this is a direct reference rather than a generic one, but it serves the same function of pulling the language down from the clouds and making a connection to individual jurors.

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Other Posts on Language Use: 

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Orvell, A., Kross, E., & Gelman, S. A. (2017). How “you” makes meaning. Science355(6331), 1299-1302.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited

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