The Distancing Signal: Shifting from the Pronoun ‘I’ to ‘You’ by an Interviewee

Mar 07, 2017

“Every age is a Judas, and betrays its Messiahs into the hands of the multitude. The voice of the private, not popular heart, is alone
authentic . . .”

Amos Bronson Alcott
(1799-1888)
New England Transcendentalist

The Distancing Signal: Shifting from the Pronoun ‘I’ to ‘You’ by an Interviewee

TISA Description of the Problem: Here is a tip, that I have been wanting to post for some years now. It really is fascinating and it was provided to me – not by a mental health professional – but by a journalism major, who I met, while supping upon a caf? latte in Brewbaker’s Caf? nestled on the main street of Keene, New Hampshire. It is not so much a tip about saying something as it is a tip about listening differently to how something is being said. Many thanks to Joan Dempsey for a wonderful interviewing tip of the month.

Tip: I’ve enjoyed listening to radio interview programs for many years, and in the past year or so I have begun to notice an interesting phenomenon. In one-on-one interviews, such as those conducted by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air, the person being interviewed almost always – at least once – shifts from first person to second person narrative. Here’s a fictional illustration:

Interviewer: Your first novel is just wonderful. Danny Blue is such a fascinating character, and so completely human. Is he based on someone you know?

Interviewee: Oh I know, isn’t he the best? I fell in love with Danny as soon as he appeared to me. I had so much fun writing him, and I really never got tired of getting to know him.

Interviewer: I read somewhere that he was loosely based on your father, who died when you were seventeen. Is this true?

Interviewee: (laughs) Yes, I guess there are a lot of similarities between Danny and my dad. I didn’t write him to be like my father intentionally, I just discovered the common characteristics over time.

Interviewer: Including the fact that they both died. That must have been tough for you.

Interviewee: Oh, I don’t know, you do what you have to do to get through these things. Was it tough? Maybe a little, but you just hunker down on the page and keep writing, you don’t let it get to you. If you keep plowing through the work, you get through the tough stuff, too.

As in this example, I’ve repeatedly heard people shift into a second person narrative when they approach an emotional subject, and it’s my theory that this is unconsciously used as a protective method to distance the person from feeling too vulnerable. I’ve been fascinated to discover that I hear this all the time now, from friends and colleagues, and in my own speech patterns. Recognizing this phenomena, and consciously shifting back into first person when I see my self unconsciously shifting into second person, has been an interesting lesson in the emotional importance of point of view. Hopefully, the delineation of this phenomena may be of use to therapists.

TISA Follow-up: Truly intriguing! And I think it is an unusually useful insight that can be of immediate use to therapists and interviewers. It is such a lovely description of the phenomena I have nothing to add directly. Indirectly it reminds me of another phenomena that I have encountered.
Occasionally I will hear clients (this process also occurs during interviews on television) talk about themselves by using their own name, as if describing another individual in third person. Sometimes the interviewee will do this for much or all of the interview.

By way of example, let us say the interviewee (fictitious name) is named Mickey Hart:

Interviewer: Well Mickey, it sounds like you held up to the pressure of the new role in the musical very well.

Interviewee: Let me tell you one thing Jim, Mickey Hart never backs down from a challenge. The “Mick-Man” is built tough. I seek out challenge. I hunger for it.

Interviewer: What is another example of where you think you rose to the occasion?

Interviewee: Holy smokes, when has Mickey Hart not risen to the challenge (chuckles), that’s my question to you. Actually, I had a rough time with my very first audition in high school. I remember it well, the Mick had to try out for Barnaby in Hello Dolly, and the competition was fierce, let me tell you. But you can guess who won.

In my opinion, almost invariably, this type of phenomena is a reflection of the client having more than a fair share of narcissism or histrionic process in his or her characterological make-up. It is as if the client is observing his or her own story, which – to the client – just happens to be a damn fascinating one at that. It can also allow the client to distance from pain as well, if necessary, similar to the intriguing phenomena noted above by Joan Dempsey.

Tip provided by:

Joan Dempsey