girl standing near carousel

The Universal You

There was a carousel in the town I grew up in that held a special attraction for me as a kid. It was originally built in 1909 and had beautifully carved wooden horses big enough that they could create the illusion of really riding. But in addition to that, the ride purveyors had added a chute of rings that riders on outside horses could reach. When the carousel got up to its highest speed, the chute was extended, and it was a special mark of growing up when I became big enough to reach out and grab a ring. Mixed in with the regular rings was one golden ring. Anyone who grabbed the golden ring, got a free ride on the carousel.

So the fun on the carousel was not only the riding of the horses but also the allure of the ring grab. In addition to all that amazing fun, there was a garbage goat next to the carousel building. Crafted as a pretty good-looking sculpture of a goat, it had suction so that if you hit the button to turn it on, it would inhale your garbage. C’mon, is there anything more fun than that? And the goat experience was free!

This past weekend I had the chance to travel back to my childhood town and take my kids to both ride the carousel and see the garbage goat. When I posted a picture on Instagram of my eight-year-old daughter reaching out for a ring, I noticed that I slipped into Universal You language in the caption,

There’s a special kind of joy watching your kids enjoy something you loved as a kid.”

I first heard the idea of the “universal you” language described in a Ten Percent Happier podcast. In one of the examples provided by Professor of Neuroscience, Anil Seth, it was of an athlete doing a post-game locker room interview.

“You’ll often hear them say things like. ‘When you miss a shot, you don’t know what to do. You just gotta go on.’ You stop and think about what they’ve just said and it’s a little puzzling. They used the word ‘you’ that we typically use to refer to other people – they are using it to refer to their own flub. We call it the universal you and it’s another way that we use language to make meaning. It gives us some space.”

Anil Seth – Ten Percent Happier

He goes on to explain it in terms of writing,

“There’s a really comfort that comes from normalizing your experience in that way. And you often see this happening over the course of expressive writing. They start off in ‘I’ mode and then as they build their stories, they shift into referring their experiences in the universal terms.”

Anil Seth – Ten Percent happier

What resonates for me in what Anil Seth says is both our ability to use language to make meaning and how the stories we tell as writers help us to do that. I relate to unconsciously shifting into the universal you mode as I work to understand my experience. The way I’ve heard the writing mantra is that the more specific you get in writing your experience, the more universal it is. An oxymoron that’s proven out again and again as we write personal narratives.

Like the carousel. There was so much delight on my kid’s faces, I could actually touch again the memory of doing the same activity as a child. “There’s a special kind of joy watching your kids enjoy something you loved as a kid.”  I think it was worthy of a universal you, don’t you?

I’ve published a companion post about the miles we travel together on my personal blog: The Next 100,000 Miles

I also post on Mondays at the Heart of the Matter blog, a great shared blog of personal storytelling. My book about my journey to find what fueled my dad’s indelible spark and twinkle can be found on Amazon: Finding My Father’s Faith.

You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

28 thoughts on “The Universal You

  1. Love…thanks for introducing me to Anil Seth. 🥰 Those moments when we see our childhood joy in the next generation…it’s a wave of nostalgia and hope all in one. Universal, indeed, I think!

    1. Whoa – what an observation “it’s a wave of nostalgia and hope all in one.” Yes!! This is a remark that is going to stick with me – thanks for helping me make meaning!

  2. I’ve heard of the universal you but I never thought much about it as I write. I know I use it intentionally when speaking to make a stronger connection, but in writing, I guess I always gave it as much thought as I do to take care not to split infinitives. Which I often miss! Actually, I probably give it less consideration and work hard to make certain all my pronouns agree throughout the piece. It certainly makes more sense and now maybe I’ll not be so careful about not invoking, and more often involving “you.” Thank you!

    1. I do that same thing about pronouns but the universal you makes me rethink that too. How interesting your note between public speaking and writing – fascinating. Thanks, Michael!

  3. Now, I’ve never seen a garbage goat, but our city did have a carousel. I have heard of the “ubiquitous you” – something writers are warned against, but never the “universal you”. Thanks for that – the other side of the coin.

    1. I’ll have to include the garbage in my photos of the week, VJ. 🙂 What an interesting comment about the ubiquitous you. I’m off to try to make sense of the difference!

  4. I do like reading writers who can express our universal feelings. The ones who touch our own experiences. I’m happy that your kids enjoyed your childhood carousel and garbage goat!

  5. I definitely do think it was worthy of a universal you. In fact the image brought me back to a memory of my oldest daughter doing the very same thing.

  6. I definitely do think it was worthy of a universal you. It reminded me of my eldest daughter doing the same thing when she was about seven or eight years old.

  7. I don’t have any souvenir of my childhood like that. Actually, I have very few memories of my childhood. I remember very well my grandparents because of the love they had for me. Then, I thought about it and Barbie came to my mind, as I saw the film recently. But I had only one son and he didn’t play with Barbie…nice post Wynne!

  8. Nice post Wynne! I use the universal you a lot but never thought much about why it feels so right. I’m reading your post from the beach. The same beach I went to since I was a little kid in the same beach. We took our kids to when they were little. We rode the same rides and played the same games and every time I come here I’m happy that we both shared those experiences.

    1. I love your beach story – is it possibly the same beach you were at when you proposed? Wow, so much rich history from your childhood and beyond. Beautiful!

      1. Great memory Wynne! Yep- same beach. I’ve spent a lot of time there in my life- I mean a lot! Too bad I don’t live a bit closer- maybe someday…

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