The English language is a beautiful, evolving thing. The way we communicate to the world is a reflection of what we, as a society, think of ourselves and of others. Talk to any etymologist, and they’ll tell you: Our language is our mirror, emphasizing our priorities, illuminating our views and philosophies, and even exhibiting our weaknesses with laser-point precision. It’s a living thing, always changing—for better or for worse.
That being said, if “selfie” and “YOLO” aren’t enough to make us cringe and reconsider where society is heading—more people have died because of selfie sticks than shark attacks this year, I kid you not—another unassuming phrase has crept into our vernacular: “You do you.”
At first take, this might seem like just another positive affirmation. Don’t be anyone but yourself! Don’t let anyone else define you! That can certainly be helpful, loving advice. But what I’ve noticed is that You Do You—let’s get in the spirit and call it YDY, shall we?—is often used to justify less-than-kosher actions, a catchall that allows people to think only of themselves.
Still not quite sure what I mean by YDY? Even if you don’t use the phrase explicitly, chances are that you’ve encountered some iteration of it from time to time.
“Oh, you know how I am.”
“Well, I guess you have to do what you have to do.”
“It is what it is.”
“Haters gonna hate.”
Do these scenarios sound a bit more familiar to you? They’re worded differently, yes. But they’re all versions of the same YDY mentality that prevails among millennials (and even non-millennials).
There’s truth to this, to an extent. It is often good, after all, to be encouraged to stay firm to our truest selves. But here’s the thing: What if our supposed “truest self” isn’t our best self?
That’s the question this New York Times article posed in a piece published about YDY earlier this year. In “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture,” author Colson Whitehead writes, “It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.”
You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? They’re just words.” But words can shape how we think. What we think shapes what we do. So we need to watch them. For, through vernacular language, we have as much cause for tragedy as we do for joy. “We have enough vision and resources to be the Frog, generous and steadfast, and more than enough poison to play the Scorpion, true to our natures,” Whitehead writes.
The phenomenon is so widespread that in 2006 (already nearly a decade ago!), New York Times author William Safire coined the term “tautophrases” to categorize these self-justifying phrases. He analyzes the use of tautophrases by cultural figures ranging from Britney Spears to former president George W. Bush’s press secretary Scott McClellan.
Whitehead argues, “Whether the subject is an imperfect situation to be endured (‘The new coffee in the break room is the pits’) or an existential conundrum (‘My body is a bunch of atoms working in brief harmony before death returns them to the universe’), ‘it is what it is’ effectively ends the discussion so that we can stop, nod in solemn agreement, and move on.”
Whether we want to believe it or not, our words have immense power. They form and confirm ways of thinking that fundamentally affect who we are as a community and as individuals. And some things don’t deserve a nod in solemn agreement.
I’m not totally hating on tautophrases. Sometimes that coffee does indeed taste like the pits—and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. As good ol’ Taylor Swift sings in “Shake it Off,” sometimes you can’t make everyone happy (“haters gonna hate”). I’d just like us to be more cognizant about how we use and receive tautophrases in our everyday conversations. Sometimes YDY is a perfectly acceptable answer. A good friend of mine was able to hike through Machu Picchu while four months pregnant. The only reaction I could muster when she told me was, “Wow, you do you.” But YDY is far too often (and usually) used as a response to justify bad behavior.
In that case, it’s an idle response, and it’s also a disingenuous one. It lacks judgment, but it can also lack courage. Basically, YDY labels poor behavior as just another personality quirk—certainly not as something that’s wrong and needs to change or at the very least deserves a bit more discussion.
YDY is particularly pesky not only because it caters to varying levels of rudeness and narcissism, but it also hurts our own mental well-being. How? Well, for one, it limits self-reflection. It hinders us from exploring our understanding of our own and others’ actions. And, in a way, it excuses, if not congratulates, reactionary impulses. Instead of pushing us to think, “Wow, why did I act that way? What caused that emotion and my response?” it oversimplifies: I’m just being me! As if all you are is your automatic reaction to a situation.
Secondly, it perpetuates bad behaviors that often hold us back from self-development, positive relationships, better jobs, or an improved perspective on the world. Ultimately, this kind of thinking holds us back from self-awareness, or self-actualization, which is the key to true kindness, understanding, and ultimately happiness, at least according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Next time, before you’re spurred by a “natural” impulse when you run into inconvenience or rudeness, it might be a good idea to analyze your own personality or motivations before you go off and “do you.” And when you do find ugly baby tautophrases creeping in to one too many conversations, know that you have the power to take a step back. Challenge yourself and others to think and grow by moving the conversation along rather than leaving it as is. If you’re going to do you, it might as well be the best version of you. After all, #YOLO.