12 May 2020
Once more this letter is not from my terrace in Palma. But one sunny day I will be back. But ‘I don’t know when’, as Vera Lynn sang to the troops serving abroad and to their families back home during the darkest days of WW2. Those were uncertain times and, in a different way, so are these.
Many of us are now confined to our homes by Covid and have time to listen to interviews on the radio and TV. Have you noticed how people in interviews often use a ready made word or phrase and thus avoid the effort of saying what they really mean? So instead of saying ‘I had to learn a lot very quickly’, they say ‘It was a steep learning curve’. This phrase is the quick fix. When used, it suggests that the point is made and there is nothing more to discuss. It suggests a certain authority. If the listener says, ‘What do you mean by ‘a sharp learning curve’?’ the speaker is often at a loss for a clear paraphrase. But no listener dares do that. Above all, expressions like this save the speaker the effort of having to express exactly what they mean. It is like having a takeaway meal rather than cooking one yourself.
What about the word ‘mindset’? “You must change your mindset,’ said a friend. Change my mindset? I can change my TV set, but a mindset! How can I change that, whatever it may be? I said, ‘I can reconsider some of my opinions, I can alter some of my attitudes, I can revise some of my beliefs but a mindset? Wow! There you have me, I’m afraid.’
The thing is that the word sounds convincing and professional. It’s a word to hide behind.
Another example is the expression ‘in denial’. Instead of saying ‘Mary just won’t accept what has happened, people say, ‘Mary is in denial’ and then there is no more to be said. The listener does not like to inquire further. You can make your own list of words to hide behind as you hear them. Instead of collecting beer mats, collect the ready made phrase! They are in good supply right now!
I once saw an Oprah Winfrey programme. Her guests were discussing the obsession of getting things absolutely right such as having the toilet roll always facing the correct way in the bathroom. One said, ‘My husband is a perfectionist’. Then she corrected herself. ‘Sorry, I forgot we’re not allowed to say the key word.’ The participants had been instructed not to use the word ‘perfectionist’ since perfectionism was the subject of the debate. How sensible! Each person had to make the effort to describe clearly what they were talking about. They couldn’t hide behind a word.
‘I am a bit of a Luddite at heart.’ This is used to show reluctance to use the latest technology. But the speaker rarely knows who the Luddites were, when they were active or what they really campaigned for. They are simply repeating a set phrase. The listener does not like to question it for fear of showing their own ignorance but, in fact, the speaker often knows little about the Luddites.
Someone says to you, ‘My marriage is breaking up’. Here the marriage is given an identity and life of its own. It becomes a third party in addition to the husband and wife. They, it seems, have little to do with it and it has little to do with them. The marriage is now something apart like their fridge or washing machine that no longer works. Using this phrase avoids any clear thought about what is really happening. If you use second hand words, your thoughts will be second hand too.
One of the most abused phrases today is ‘Research says’. This has many variants such as ‘Research has shown’ and ‘According to recent research’. This phrase sets a seal of respectability on the view of the speaker. If research says so, then that’s it. Don’t argue any more. If the user is a university professor who has the research at their fingertips, then that’s fine. However, most speakers rarely stop to explain what type of research it is, over how long or how many people took part. Research for some people is nothing more than checking a couple of facts on the internet. Unless the research can be specified, the words ‘Research says’ are meaningless.
Finally, consider the phrase ‘out there’. You will hear this twenty times a day on TV and radio. A typical example is ‘There are a lot of people out there who agree’. Take the phrase out of the sentence and you have ‘There are a lot of people who agree.’ What is lost? Nothing at all. Of course, the people are out there. Where else are they going to be? Even the weather forecast is not immune. ‘Today it’s going to be cold out there.’ Where else can it be cold?
Don’t follow the tramlines that these expressions restrict you to. Use your language, and don’t let your language use you! Say what you mean. Make the effort to think for yourself.
Do not hide behind words. It really doesn’t help.