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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Is this really what you want to be saying to me?

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: Opinions

Too often we say things without truly thinking about them first. We are all guilty of it. I am guilty of a fair number of these and am trying to kick myself of the habit. Most often these oral faux pas occur because we have been programmed to say these things; certain words and phrases are so ingrained in our minds that we say them all the time—even when we really should not. Now, this is not about words or phrases that we should not say because they are offensive or hurtful; this is about words or phrases that make us sound stupid.

Literally is literally used far too often. The Oxford English Dictionary—a once most hallowed source for the English language but somewhat less hallowed since it made “<3” a word—defines literally thusly: “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” This is unfortunately not how most people use literally today. Most people use literally as a superlative just to make their every sentence more intense and more over-the-top.

How often have you heard someone say something along the lines of: “I literally could not get out of bed this morning”? Now you probably just take this as a statement meant to tell you how exhausted they are or what a crazy party they had attended the night before. But, if you take that “literally” literally, they are saying that they could not escape the clutches of their beds this morning and are, presumably, still there. That is a mighty fine hologram you’ve got there.

The next time someone says something like that to you—even if it is me—quote Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” and tell them: “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

Another thing that people say too often is “no offense” either right before or right after an offensive statement. Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: If you feel the need to say “no offense,” then what you are saying is offensive. Rather than say “no offense,” just do not make your offensive comment. Either that or be proud of your offensiveness and just hurl that insult with all the force you can muster. Do not weaken your barb with a meaningless phrase.

Another is “How are you?” Now, I know what you are thinking: But that is just common courtesy! What could possibly be wrong with asking someone that? The next time you are about to ask someone how they are, ask yourself: Do I really care? If the answer is no, then just don’t ask. A quick “hello” will not offend your acquaintance because, by asking them how they are, you are forcing them to ask how you are in return. And there’s a really good chance they do not care either.
Also, once the question is out, you can’t take it back. Most often your friend will say “good” just because she doesn’t want to get into it with you right now but, every once in a while, you’ll get that “fine,” which begs for a follow-up question, or you’ll get the honest “bad,” to which you need to feign sympathy.

The worst is when people pass each other on a Brandeis walkway and ask this question. We are both clearly headed somewhere and if I’m not slowing down to have a conversation with you, I probably don’t have time. Also, timing your speech when you are walking is really difficult. If you begin speaking too early, your friend won’t be able to hear you. Side note: If your friend can hear you, you are shouting and probably being really embarrassing. Inversely, if you begin speaking too late, you both have to stop walking in order to finish your salutations.

So, the next time you see me walking to class, don’t be afraid just to say a quick hello and then continue on your merry way. That is unless you want to hear me complain about the Registrar’s Office and their endless forms … because I totally can.

Lastly, try to avoid those semi-rhetorical questions that one asks to make sure your victim is still listening to you. These include: “Am I right?”; “Do you know what I mean?” and “Yeah?” By adding these onto the ends of each of your sentences, you are doubling the length of our conversation and yet halving the amount of content covered. You might have some really fascinating things to say but, if you check to make sure I’m with you after every sentence, I will just start tuning you out.

Of course, this is semi-acceptable when on the phone. I cannot tell you how many times I have been on the phone with my mother only to hear an ominous silence and realize the call has dropped. I have become somewhat paranoid now and during long stories, will stop talking and question “Ema?” I won’t start talking again until my mother confirms she is still there, whether she wants to be or not.

But if you are in the same room as someone and facing each other, there is no reason to check that they are listening to you. Also, if I disagree with you, I’ll usually tell you unprompted. In case you hadn’t realized this yet by reading this column, I am kind of opinionated. Also, there is no reason to force someone to participate in your monologue. It’s your monologue; own it.

So, before you speak, run through a quick checklist: Am I saying something I really don’t mean? Am I torturing my friend with lengthy delays in our conversation? Am I bullying my friend into responses he doesn’t want to give? If you have to answer yes to any of these, there is an issue.

As I said before, I am certainly guilty of all of these but I am working on weeding them out of my speech. It is a slow process but an important one nonetheless. If you hear me saying one of these things, please call me out on it (unless you’re my brother, then just shut up). We can all work together to improve our interactive experiences and to prevent the obnoxious wandering thoughts that occur when we speak to others.