Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, But Don’t Say it Mean

We live in an age of  “cultivated uncertainty”  in many aspects of our culture. Many seem almost proud of the fact that they are uncertain of things for this makes them seem to themselves (an they hope to others) to be “open-minded” and “tolerant.” Tolerance of course is one of the only virtues left in many people’s world. To say that there is a truth and that you can come to know it  articulate it seems “arrogant” to many. How dare a person really claim to know things better than anyone else. It is better to be a “seeker.” It is better to “live the question” rather than pretend that you have an answer or that there really are any answers. These are the “virtues” of relativism.

A lot of this relativism has seeped even into the way we talk. Consider a few examples:

  1. There is an annoying expression that often occurs between people who see things differently. It comes up a lot in interviews on television and radio. The reporter or interviewer will often say, “Are you suggesting that…..?”   For example in a recent interview on the radio I heard a talk show host ask a bishop, “Are suggesting that politicians who vote to fund abortion are not loyal Catholics?” The irritable  part of me wants to answer for the Bishop, “I am not only suggesting it I am plainly saying it.”  The dynamic of using the word “suggest” implies that the Bishop cannot really speak the truth or know it, he can only “suggest” it. The reporter seems to live in world where nothing is certain, (except that nothing is certain) and thus the Bishop can only “suggest.” This type of interaction seems to occur more in regular conversations at meetings and other interactions as well. It bespeaks an attitude of cultivated uncertainty.
  2. Another annoying little word that has crept into the vocabulary of many, especially younger people,  is the word “like.”  As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Or when asked an ordinary question such as “Why didn’t you do your homework?”  The answer may come back,  “Well, y’know it’s like, I was busy?”  At one level the over use of the word “like” is just an annoying and unconcious habit. But it also seems to flow from the climate of cultivated uncertainty. Instead of something being what it actually is,  it is “like” something. So instead of the student simply declaring, “I was busy and neglected to do my homework, for which I take responsibility” they say rather, “It was,  like,  I was busy.” But what does “like being busy” amount to and how does it differ from actually being busy?  This habit of using “like” comes from a culture which says “Don’t actually say what you mean, be vague and uncertain. After all nothing is really all that clear. Nothing really is what it is, it’s just like something else. Using “like” also helps a person evade direct responsibility for what they actually do.
  3. A third example is already on display in number 2 above. It is the tendency to end declarative sentences with an interrogative tone.  As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Here too the habit seems to emerge from a culture that doesn’t want to simply say something plain because that means that we actually think that something is so. Thus, instead of saying “Your habit of ending statements as questions is annoying and makes you seem vapid and uncertain” many simply “suggest” it: “It’s like, y’know annoying?”  Almost as if to say, “It’s not that I could say it actually IS annoying, that would be arrogant. Rather I just want to suggest that something might be so.”

These habits are wonderfully and comically displayed  in the video below (hat tip to Creative Minority Report).

The bottom line is that: I am “suggesting”  the cultivated uncertainty of our culture has, like, y’know seeped into our unconscious?”  In plainer language, the relativism of our times has gone deep into our minds and effects the very way we talk. Most of these mannerism are unconscious to us. But that is just the point. It illustrates how deeply we have  bought into and communicated, especially to the young, that to plainly assert what we know and think to be true is “arrogant.” Instead we should couch our language in more delicate circumlocutions. We suggest instead of say. Things are like something, instead of plainly being that thing. Everything is questionable, so we end statements like they were questions. Speaking plainly is perceived by many as arrogant, as if we actually believed what we were saying!

There is a place for humility and uncertainty but we have adopted it to a fault. It is the voice of relativism echoing through our verbal expression. Many today are vague and uncertain in their speech because our culture wants it that way and sees it as  becoming.  Jesus says, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt 5:37). A modern version of this is “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it mean.”

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

20 Replies to “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, But Don’t Say it Mean”

  1. Whoa…this is, like, good stuff, ya know? I mean, I’m like, hey, that Monsignor can really, like, write, right? 🙂

    Here’s another annoyance – and it’s mostly from kids (but NOT mine); when an adult says ‘thank you’ and a kid, especially one who works in the service industries, say “NO PROBLEM.” Gaaaa! I hate that.

    Finally, when it comes to speaking directly, even if done in a kind and courteous fashion, one is likely to be labeled “RUDE!” Or, “BE NICE!”

    One either needs to tell white lies in pretend agreement, or get used to being called rude for speaking an honest opinion.

  2. Perhaps some popular TV shows have characters who are not familiar with “You’re Welcome!”

    Even a number of years ago, and even some seniors in their 80s (I’m in the 70s) use “No Problem” instead of “You’re Welcome.” If the seniors weren’t doing it, I would consider it a generational thing: “My Bad!” instead of “It’s my fault: Sorry!” when something goes wrong, as an admission of fault.

  3. I do live in South Africa, but generally, I find questions allow further conversation, and can be used in the pull method of persuasion. They also force an opponent to clarify, and can direct conversations. I prefer subtlety, but then again it benefits me. The word like is used to create mind of a situation, to try to create empathy with the speaker. “I was like” is like saying “one”.

    I was actually taught to use the pull method. I use it in political meetings, and for journalistic reasons, and as a law student. Yes, be clear, but only when necessary. Subtlety has greater subconscious effect. “Are you suggesting”- pull method, is being used to force the bishop to take a stand or else change his view. Forced clarification. Yes, we live with relativism, but some things are relative. I am uncertain on some things, though I have never been attacked for being direct. Except perhaps in asking someone to move out of a chair, or some other things.

    Perhaps it is relativism causing it, or perhaps it is there for another reason. That of persuasion, that of empathy and sympathy being conveyed and requested.

    No problem, like other phrases, such as “no issue” simply mean- its a pleasure – but in modern language.

    Yes, be clear, the person didn’t use an object on the victim while observing by the trees: the brown haired man standing over there savagely beat the victim over there, with a knopkerrie, which he did just inside the trees, while I observed- is a better way of putting it. But vagueness also is useful. I use it quite effectively, and it gets what you want quicker.

  4. No problem, like other phrases, such as “no issue” simply mean- its a pleasure – but in modern language.

    Obviously. That still doesn’t make it right – it’s disrespectful, in my opinion. There are acceptable and expected phrases used in civilized discourse; “Thank you” is answered with “you’re welcome.” “How are you?” is answered with “Fine, thank you.”

    It’s one thing for kids to use slang with other kids, but it’s not appropriate to do so with adults. (Think Eddie Haskell on Leave It To Beaver)

    As for Monsignor’s ‘suggesting’ comment, when the media ask “are you suggesting…” it is more often than not, hostility or righteous indignation.

    There’s a time and a place for goofing around and making loose with jargon, but kids especially need to learn to speak properly so they might converse properly with others outside their peer group or family.

    Marc – if you are arguing a case in front of a judge or negotiating in front of a mediator and for whatever reason the judge or mediator says ‘thank you’, are you going to answer with ‘no problem’?

  5. As a young person, I do admit that I use uncertain phrases and uncertain tones at times and I do have a habit of sticking the word “like” randomly when I speak, but I mostly do because I don’t like being proved wrong and not because I don’t want to seem arrogant or something. I say “I think” and “but I don’t know” too much when asked questions because a lot of times I am not sure about specific details and I don’t want to feel guilty for telling someone the wrong thing.

  6. We can, in large part, thank Enlightenment philosophers for this; they disconnected truth and wisdom from God and turned the focus of thinking upon ourselves. Now truth is no longer anchored in a Creator who is larger than we; it is dependent upon ourselves, and while something may be true for me, it might not be for you.

    With no anchor for truth, can there be truth? With nearly all thought and wisdom outside the Church–and much of the thought inside our sister Christian traditions as well–dominated by Enlightenment philosophies, it’s little wonder relativism flourishes. We as Catholics, rooted by a philosophic Tradition (and tradition) that predates the Enlightenment and continues to ponder deeply the mysteries of God, are tasked with keeping alive the idea of absolute Truth until modern society realizes how shallow and superficial–and ultimately unfulfilling–relativism really is. Only that anchor of God keeps us from being set adrift.

  7. My addition to Msgr Pope’s three examples would be:
    4) “I love that new coffee at Star___”. The lazy, misuse and trivializing of the most important word in our language (only behind the words to identify the Lord) is LOVE. Why must we love EVERYTHING. Is our language so destitute that we cannot ‘grade’ our passions when we express ourselves? If our words reflect our intellect, emotions, beliefs, etc. then we have to teach our children to respect words. I vote that the word LOVE get as much respect as God… cuz … God is Love….

  8. The one thing that anoys me about people of my geration is are wording in comuncation it as if people born between 1980’s to 1990 ‘s have forgotten how to speak and write the langues taught to use in school. Thank God for us who actual still be belive in useing proper wording . Bless You Be , Alaina

  9. I think this is why we have such a rejection of traditional religious values and the rise of non- denominational churches. I can’t stand when people say they believe in Jesus Christ BUT they take nothing as an absolute. Many of the non- denom’s seem to take what they like or what feels good and build a “perfect” god for themselves to worship. It seems anything that feeds their natural human tendencies is accepted while anything else that asks us to enact a little discipline is tossed out with the excuse of, “My god would never make me do that.” It’s almost like they are asking God to bow to them rather than the other way around. I also know many Roman Catholics who are lukewarm on alot of things and, of course, the devout like myself get called judgemental for it. For example, an acquaintance of the family helped a friend obtain an abortion. My wife and I were talking and I said nicely he needs to confess and do pennance for the sin. I was accused of judging him and being arrogant and preaching. Basically, I didn’t know the true circumstances so I had no right to pass judgement. Did I need to know more? Abortion is NEVER condoned by God. In my opinion, I was not judging, I was stating a fact. Was I wrong? Am I not obligated to say something? As I understand it, and please correct me Msgr. if I am wrong, but abortion is wrong period! That includes condoning it for others, suggesting it, paying or offering to pay for it, even simply providing the ride to the clinic is all sinful. No? At any rate, I do however think the worst part of this non- judgmental “everything is up for debate society” we live in is it makes the good people, who have tried to remain moral and good and know there is right and wrong, question themselves. It really makes you doubt yourself when you are the only one in the room who thinks a certain way ,especially, among people who are supposed to share your same values. I think the struggle wears people down, they just agree and the situation becomes worse. It’s just terrible.

  10. One must consider that one person can speak several different ways depending on his or her audience. A person may use colloquial language when speaking to friends, or shopping and such. That same person may employ appropriate and formal language when his or her audience requires the use of precise wording, such as a Law Judge. Expression is important not only in what you say, but how you say it. Words form pictures in the mind, and add flavor to the thought to enhance a variety of feelings, moods, and sensations to create a complete understanding. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Proverb 25:11. Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the right word, and almost the right word, is the differenct between lightening, and the lightening bug.” Often times what is not said is more important than what is said. For a lawyer as an example, exactness must be the primary aim.

  11. “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it mean.”
    This is a criticism of one of my adult children about my irony, as well as my manner, and I confess, sometimes anger or at least protest when I am in a ‘reactive’ mood, and am, trying to ‘defend’ myself, or at least stop control of others. But I am reading in the meditations of ‘A Course of Miracles’, some help therapeutic counters to this difficult, in this case, that any action we take towards others, is also a course of action we take towards ourselves. (In my life I have learned that something can be learned from the details of something that we do not agree with in principle) – i.e. that we can not only forgive our enemies but with caution, and discretion, learn from them.
    In this case, about meaning what you mean, the difficult may be that I do not always know what a person means? It’s my interpretation, unless I go by absolute values. This is a current philosophical conundrum, which I will not go into because of that. The book I am reading suggests that the issue of ‘relativism’, stems not from merely an absolutism/relativism split, but duality generally. This is a result of the predominance of epistemology, over ontology, or the primacy of knowing to being. I am merely beginning this, Jim. I would like your help on this whenever in this blog the opportunity presents itself. There may therefore be different kinds of relativism, as their are different kinds of absolutism, (i.e. what their reference is). How is presents itself in modern dialogue is indeed an interesting indication of the confusions. The reason here is simply to give an example that ‘meanness’, may not necessarily be ‘mean’. It can be difficult to say what you mean, and mean what you say. ‘Meanness’ or the mean of Aristotle, are two possible results, and/or efforts to bridge the gap.
    P.S. May the faith and prayers expressed in today’s mass be with the members of your church in your Ministry of evangelization. Good, and very humorous post, this! Really enjoyed!

  12. It is a privilege to know and use and understand indirect language. Makes one think more.

  13. Have you also noticed the tendency in some persons to laugh or chuckle in answer to a question, even to an attempt at conversation – they even chuckle again after a second comment or question. What’s with, like, that man?

  14. MCITL It is difficult sometimes, isn’t, to fathom out what is and is not disrespectful. I am saying this because of my thesis that laughter without a smile is at least that- disrespectful. Also the response to ‘thank-you’, which has changed to ‘no problem’, is sometimes, and is sometimes not appropriate. Sometimes, in place of ‘you’re welcome’, which involved a person showing deference or respect to those who thanked them, (perhaps they were servants to some lord!), nor a waiter or waitress, for instance, will sometimes be keeping more (personal) power for themselves in this answer. It thus involves some kind of substitute, sometimes, for including a more personal response within the expected customary formal one. Sometimes, ‘no problem’ can, (for me) be actually more appropriate than the ‘you’re welcome’ it replaces. It is a new colloquialism; perhaps it’s uses are still being developed; and some will be ‘thinned out’ in the process. What is at issue, however, is some sort of power/deference searching. welcome means to receive someone graciously, perhaps – well come – come well- so sometimes no problem can be a better answer if someone for instance asks you to do something, and you do it gratis. I objected to the ‘no problem’ myself, and was very articulate against it! But this is a ‘mass phenomena’. I can’t stop it and therefore I have ‘no problem’ with it!!!!!! Thank you! It is a ‘search for personal empowerment and meaning’. I hope I am welcome! If not, No problem!

  15. Reminds me of the G.K. Chesterton quote:

    “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled on the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth. This has been exactly reversed…The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt, the Divine Reason…We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication tables.”

  16. “Groovy, man.” “Right on.” “Cool,” Dare I comment (with an upward intonation at the end of my written sentence), that those of us in the 50-60ish age group don’t recall any of our own weird ways of talking in our more youthful days?

    History does have a way of repeating itself, it usually just takes a slight twist. I recently remember thinking that our “bell bottoms” were only slightly different that the so called “flares” that our teens wore a few years ago. Are there any of us in our geriadult years (the 50 – 60ish agegroup) that can honestly say that we don’t have some “treasured sayings” from our youthful years? c ya. g2g. gerisitting, pos (that is, my 82 & 84 year old parents are looking over my shoulder). Times change. Is it really all that bad? I too get very annoyed with my kids, like, ya know, like, tuning me out with ear buds in their ears. My vote is to keep the faith, listen for a window of opportunity and receptiveness and teach with gentle love. Throwing in a little humor won’t hurt either.

  17. Tolerance of course is one of the only virtues left in many people’s world.

    Stupidity isn’t necessarily correlated with ignorance. I know some simpletons who would never come out with a sentence like this. I know some mentally retarded people who would never come out with a sentence like this. And because of that, I put you, Charles Pope, below both the simplest of the simple and the “retardedest” of the most mentally retarded. You, Pope, are really. really. stupid.

  18. I have lived in the US for five years having migrated from Europe. As a small businessman I have found that the US is fickle in their sincerity to be nice, business or personal.

    I love living in the US but have to admit that ‘Have a nice day now’ isn’t sincere, just a phrase.

    Also, not answering or returning calls is perceived by this European as just plain unprofessional and rude.

    I quick short feedback would avoid a lot of misunderstanding so to NOT do this is a sign to me that I don’t count – and that I take personally!
    So, are Americans fickle and insincere – on the whole yes. They wish to be perceived as nice and friendly but avoid confrontation with silence and avoid the issue.
    We Europeans are blunt, but at least one knows where they stand!
    Come on US – bite the bullet. Say what you mean and mean what you say, just don’t be mean when saying it.!
    Peter Hedley

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