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Meaningless Words Are More Common Than We Notice

Habits of speech are not necessarily habits of thought.

Key points

  • Words can be used much like territorial animal sounds.
  • If our words reliably achieve the effects we want, they will tend to become unthinking habits.
  • We can gossip about other people's thoughtless word habits, but it's taboo to tell someone that we don't think they mean what they say.
  • It's easy for us to speak with insistent passionate conviction about things we haven't thought about at all.

I think we overlook how often our words are just animal noises, braying not saying. We happen on some words that reliably get us what we want. They become habits of speech. Just blurt whatever works.

It’s more charitable and respectful to assume that everyone’s always rational, thinking about the meaning of what they’re saying. But it’s more realistic and honest to assume that utility matters more than thought. We speak in cliches more than ideas, and not just innocuous cliches. A lot of our cliches are territorial.

Created by the author, Jeremy Sherman
Source: Created by the author, Jeremy Sherman

What’s most immediately useful for any of us is an uncluttered path to wherever our impulses take us. Our cliches, therefore, tend to be bulldozers. Bull as in BS, devoid of meaning. Bulldozing as whatever helps us plow through obstacles. Obstacles block and demotivate us, filling us with doubt about what to do and whether we’ve got what it takes to do it. Yuk! Who wants that?

So we accumulate “noping strategies,” coping strategies that bray “nope, don’t go there” at anyone discouraging. For example, we’ll get in the robotic habit of calling any criticism, “rude” “negative,” “unkind,” “judgmental,” “inappropriate”– whatever works to get folks to back off.

Created by the author. Jeremy Sherman
Source: Created by the author. Jeremy Sherman

We can gossip all we want about the mindlessness of other people, but try telling someone to their face that you suspect they don’t care about the meaning of what they’re saying, that they’re just trying to win, and get ready for a counter-attack. They’ll often just spit out more cliches to shut you down. Faced with a choice between self-doubt and spouting territorial cliches, we all tend to choose the cliches.

And we all tend to back down when we’re brayed at, which makes people’s braying habit work that much more reliably. We might think it’s more civilized to back down, but it does enable the braying. If folks back down when we call them rude, why would we bother wondering what rude means?

Created by the author, Jeremy Sherman
Source: Created by the author, Jeremy Sherman

None of this makes me cynical about us. It just makes me wonder how best to keep us from braying our way to extinction. Reality matters. Thoughtful, meaningful words are still our best chance of survival. It’s just that brayed cliches are easier. Lip service bulldozing clears the path of least resistance. It comes easiest to animals like us. We all seem perfectly capable of braying conviction and passion as though we mean every word we say without giving our words any thought. That’s an interesting and pressing human problem.

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