Each day, there was an ominous sign at the front of the room: “What are you pretending not to know?” Each day it got bigger. “What are you pretending not to know?” Until, on the last day, it was an enormous poster. “What are you pretending not to know?”
The place was one of those “large group awareness trainings” I’ve mentioned here before. In this case, something called Personal Dynamics here in NYC. It was many years ago, but the question lingers: What am I pretending not to know about my life?
Most of our lives depend on not owning or accepting certain facts we know full well. To our thinking, if we acknowledge and accept these facts, it would necessitate action, which we fear taking for whatever reason. So we either don’t talk about these things, shoving them into our psyche the best we can, or we buffet their impact with noncommittal language.
For example, I was in a relationship a few years ago with someone I knew I was incompatible with. I attempted to reconcile it with myself and with her for some time, but became convinced that it was dead long before it died. The principle way I stayed in it was by refusing to talk about it. Speak no evil….
The other way I avoided addressing my woes—a way that still works quite well—was with a smokescreen of irresolute language, fraught with “hedge words.”
One definition I found calls hedge words “any device that qualifies the writer’s [or speaker’s] commitment to the truth of what is being communicated.” Traditionally, hedge words are words like “might,” “could,” “I don’t think,” etc. They’re a way people can say something without committing to the statement’s veracity. For example, “I am not sure if I feel satisfied with this relationship” versus “I am dissatisfied with this relationship.” The former, hedging statement permits wiggle room, because of all the qualifications that lessen its impact. Another reading of the first statement is, “I am not sure I am not happy with this relationship.” The latter, declarative statement issues a fact. Facts are objectively what is so (even when the fact is my opinion). In this case, dissatisfaction is a fact (it certainly was for me).
The most pernicious and ubiquitous hedge words are “like” and “you know.” These three words are responsible for castrating the thoughts and speech of several generations of English speakers.
Popular linguistic theory—at least as I have deduced from the internet—considers “like” and “you know” to be filler words, which are, according to Wikipedia, “a sound or word that is spoken in conversation by one participant to signal to others that he/she has paused to think but is not yet finished speaking.” But is this really what we do when we say “like” and “you know?” Are we merely filling up space, signaling that we are not finished speaking? I believe “like” and “you know” hedge (I’m not alone on this for the record). Let’s examine.
The word “like,” in its simplest definition, means “similar to.” “Like,” to be clear, is not “is.” For example, “He, like, totally hurt my feelings” is not “He hurt my feelings,” or “My feelings were hurt.” We declare something, but remain uncommitted because that which we declare is not what is so—it’s “like” what is so.
The phrase “you know” is another hedge that reflects our constant need for affirmation. It’s a way we divest ourselves of ownership of our thoughts because what we say becomes dependent on the consent and understanding of our listeners. We are saying in effect, “I don’t know until you know.” But don’t we have independent thoughts? What if we could have them without the approval of another?
[To be clear, “you know” is not the helpful question “do you understand” or similar questions. The latter being an interrogative that safeguards against misinterpretation.]
Hedge words are tools for pretending to not know what we know. By keeping our communication vague and noncommittal, we diffuse a fact’s existence and put off dealing with those facts indefinitely. Nothing needs to be addressed because it’s “like” something is going on. “Like a problem” is not a problem. Both the speaker and the listener are let off the hook of dealing with “like problems.” What a relief.
In the case of “you know,” the listener must know something in order for the speaker to know it himself. What if the listener doesn’t know? Why is it necessary for others to know what we know in order for us to know?
Whether we are looking for clarity around a subject, have a question or just want to communicate clearer, try this test today:
- Use declarative language. Eliminate the word “like”—as in “similar to”—as much as possible. If something is so, say it’s so. Creating a buffer doesn’t undermine something’s existence. Say what is so and deal with the consequences (you will eventually anyway).
- Avoid approval seeking. Own your thoughts. They might not always be constructive or wise, but they are yours. What situations, actions or beliefs are you seeking the approval of others in order to act or believe? What if no one knows? Can you believe or act on something without approval or understanding? Can you live based on your own knowledge?
- Watch out for other hedge words: might, could, seems, possibly, etc. Take a chance. Speak your truth. Be willing to be incorrect.
For many of us, hedges—“like” and “you know” in particular—seem permanently ingrained in our speech. Eradicating them might take some time and a lot of attention. But their capacity to undermine everything we say or do is enormous. They are the linguistic equivalent of dousing perfume on a turd. Mask the smell all you want. Try to pretend your shit don’t stink. Go ahead and ask others if they think it smells okay. Let them agree that smells great. But like all facts, eventually that turd and all its putridness will remain, you know?