Are you self-absorbed or self-effacing?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s White Coat, Black Artinterviewed Elizabeth Rathbun, a 66 year-old Vancouver resident with severe MS. Her story is compelling but it’s not the focus of this blog post. The focus here is narrative clues to the tension between us as individuals and society. I use Goldman’s interview with Rathbun as a vehicle only. I could pick millions of similar interviews or conversations that have the same dynamic and I have many in computer files. The fact is, I’ve just listened to the most recent episode of White Coat, Black Art and this interview struck me as prototypical example of the type of narrative I want to analyze here. 

For a long time I’ve been interested in individualism versus society. There’s a lot of great literature around this topic but Norbert Elias tops the list of sociologists I think of when I try to parse out the relationships we have with ‘society’. In psychological terms the relationship between the individual and society is bound up with all manner of confounding moralisms and ideological constructs. Like a number of other sociologists I find that conversation and narrative are a treasure trove of hints and hypotheses about our social relations. 

So, aside from the story itself, what is it about what Elizabeth Rathbun says to Brian Goldman that catches my attention? Read the following three paragraphs from the interview. Rathbun is talking about her experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her MS is a particularly debilitating strain, leaving her in a mechanized wheelchair to get around, and in constant need of care. 

“What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which you look after your family, and the ways in which you contribute in the community.”

“Each time you think you’re there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in your lives and you start all over again.”  

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

Before going on I will now edit Rathbun’s comments a little and reproduce my edits below. See if you can tell the difference between the originals and my edits. Here are my edited versions of her comments:

“What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which I look after your family, and the ways in which I contribute in the community.”

“Each time I think I’m there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in my life and I start all over again.”  

So, why did Rathbun not use I in her comments on her MS? Let’s be clear, I’m not picking on Rathbun nor finding fault with the way she answered Goldman’s questions. Back in 2006 a number of my students in a research methods course undertook some research on what we called pronoun bending. Pronoun bending describes the use of the personal pronoun you rather than I in daily conversation, interviews, etc., when I often seems the most appropriate pronoun to use. One of the research papers we used as a source for trying to figure out the meaning of this phenomenon was called The Indefinite Youby Hyman (2006).[1]He concluded that the use of the indefinite you was in his words youbiquitous. Rathbun is not alone in her use of the indefinite you. We all do it! I’m adding the paper my students put together in 2006 to a page here. It would be helpful if you read it now, especially the findings at the end of the paper. 

At times people being interviewed or in daily conversation will start off by using I then switch to you at certain times. My students were most interested in why that happened. Hyman (2006) and Senger[2](1963) in a much earlier paper suggested a few possible reasons. It could be a defense mechanism or a means of distancing oneself from a painful reality. It could be a way of showing that we’re not so self-absorbed that we can’t relate to other people and their problems.

One clear moral/behavioural principle in our world is that we shouldn’t brag always using I, I, I in our conversations. It’s okay to be an individual, but we must also recognize our social connections and our reliance on others. Self-effacement is problematic, but it’s non-threatening too. When Rathbun says with reference to dealing with a debilitating disease like MS that “What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial,” she is unconsciously appealing to our sense of belonging and understanding. She could just as easily have said “What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial.” In using the indefinite you, she is implicitly imploring us to agree with her. She is subconsciously saying “You know what I’m going through, don’t you. I’m not alone in feeling this way.” 

Now consider Rathbun’s third paragraph above. I repeat it here:

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

In this paragraph she is using an indexical use of you. In other words, she is pointing to you specifically and saying that may be where you would draw the line in the sand, but not me! “I couldn’t care less.” Wow. She’s owning that one. There is a switch in this quote from using you to using I, but it’s a ‘natural’ one, not one from I to an indefinite you. 

This post is plenty long enough already, so instead of going on and on, I’d like to challenge you to pay close attention to the conversation you have or hear and try to pick out speakers’ uses of the indefinite you. I think it’s a fun exercise. And please read Pronoun Bending on this blog. 


[1]Hyman, Eric, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[2]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.