Colin Berry invites famous and unfamous men alike to own what they say, and for all of us to reap the benefits.
On “Fresh Air” recently, Terry Gross was interviewing Alec Baldwin, the “30 Rock” star, and at one point, here’s what he said:
“Starring in films for studios, in those kind of big-ticket films, you get a period of time, especially when you’re younger, and when that doesn’t work out, your career evolves into something else. You go do independent films, and there’s less money at stake, and then you turn around, and you’re 40, and then you turn around, and you’re 50.”
Guys—especially famous ones getting interviewed—talk this way a lot. They use “you” when what they mean is “I.” The winning quarterback: Hey, you just do your best out there. The heroic fireman: You don’t even think about it, you just go in. Lance Armstrong, talking to Oprah: You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times, you have a happy marriage, you have children.
But here’s the thing. When a guy talks about himself using you, he loses me, figuratively and semantically. Take Lance: even though he says “you,” he’s still talking to me, and I’ve never had cancer, I’ve certainly never won a Tour de France, and I’ve definitely never had kids. When he speaks of himself this way, I don’t connect with him. I feel separate from Lance and what he’s experienced.
Same is true with men in my life. When a neighbor of mine, referring to his son’s friends’ parents, tells me, “you have no idea who you’re dealing with,” or an old high school friend confides, of his pot smoking, “you know, you’ve just gotta check out every once in a while,” my disconnection is the same. Maybe I do have an idea who I’m dealing with. Maybe I don’t have to check out once in a while. The two of us remain separate.
There’s an easy fix, though: use “I” instead of “you.” I overcame the disease. I won the Tour de France seven times. I have no idea who I’m dealing with. I’ve just got to check out every once in a while.
This simple difference achieves two things. First, it allows the man to clearly own the experience for himself (more about this in a moment), and second, it allows the listener—me—to better connect with a man who’s speaking about something true and real for him.
When I talk, if I use “I” instead of “you,” I take responsibility for what I’m saying, as well as for all the feelings and emotions that go along with it. I have a certain kind of marriage. I have kids. (Or I don’t.) I turn around and I’m 40. Using “I” increases the likelihood that I’m connected squarely with what I’m talking about, rather than weakening it by using the generic “you.”
Let me give you an example. At a party a few months back, I was talking with a man I knew about his recent divorce. He spoke for a while about logistics and legalities before I stopped him.
“How are you feeling these days?” I asked. He and his wife had been together 12 years.
“Oh, fine, you know, trying to catch up on work stuff and I was thinking about—”
“No, hold on. How are you feeling?”
He looked uncomfortable. “Well, you know, you—you feel sad, after all that time, and that potential and nothing comes from it and…” I could tell he was uneasy, but something deeper was there.
I held his uneasy gaze. “Try this,” I said, gently. “‘I feel sad.’ Try it.”
“No, no, I mean, you just—”
“Just try it.”
He glanced away and took a breath. “Okay, I feel sad.”
“Try it again. Really give yourself the chance to feel it.”
He seemed to settle into himself and this time, as he spoke the words, his whole demeanor changed: the weight of a failed dozen-year marriage seemed to settle upon his shoulders and face, and it was clear he genuinely felt sadness. Watching it sink into his body, I felt it, too, and for the first time, his words felt congruent with what I was seeing. We stayed this way for a minute or so.
He gave a long, slow exhale. “Thanks, man,” he said. “I think I needed that.”
This use of “you” instead of “I” seems to have gained a foothold back in the 80s and 90s, with writers like Jay McInerney (in Bright Lights, Big City) and Chuck Palahniuk (in certain passages of Fight Club), but even Faulkner and Camus used it, too. Yet while “you” seems to imply a certain universality, the disconnection it creates between a man and his emotions, as well as between men, far outweighs any pseudo-familiarity it offers.
But isn’t using “I” egotistical? No. It’s honest, clear, authentic, and powerful. It’s communication, not generalization. Embrace it.
In my men’s group, in the past decade, I’ve witnessed time and time again how this simple shift in speaking can directly affect men’s understanding of what they’re saying, allowing them to effectively connect with and navigate the emotions that go along with it. And their emotional authenticity, in turn, links up with my emotions and allows me to connect with them more deeply.
So Alec, Lance, and other male celebs: why not give it a shot? In our star-worshipping culture, if you guys start something, others will follow. A simple semantic shift from “you” to “I” can result in more clarity, better ownership, greater authenticity, and more genuine, powerful, emotional connection among men. Speaking for myself, I’m ready for that. How about you?