Say this, not that

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Today, I’m going to talk about words and phrases, and then ask for your help.

I used to work for the company that ran the Scary Mommy website. We ran an article once by Leigh Anderson, in which she proposed banning the phrase “Can’t you just…” from parenting conversations.

Imagine: A mom or dad (probably a mom; this was Scary Mommy after all) is venting about how it’s hard to find time to prepare home-cooked meals every day, or how she wishes her kids watched less TV, or any of a million other common parenting gripes.

A well-meaning friend chimes in:

  • “Can’t you just … cook the meals on the weekend, then freeze them and heat them during the week?”

  • “Can’t you just … set out some crayons? That’ll keep them busy for a bit.”

  • “Can’t you just … put the baby in a stroller and come visit us?”

It’s a small thing, Anderson conceded, but starting out with these three words signals to the other person that you don’t think their concerns are at all valid. And that, intentionally or not, cuts off any consideration of truly good ideas you might want to offer next.

The article stuck with me. I don’t think I’ve ever said “Can’t you just…” since reading it. (Well, except as part of a running joke my wife and I now have: “Can’t you just carry the piano upstairs by yourself?”)

It also sparked me to be on the lookout for other seemingly innocuous, throwaway phrases that can unintentionally undermine what people are trying to say.

For example, the common greeting: “How are you doing? Good?”

I think we can usually do better. It’s not often that people really want to hear how someone is doing when asking that question. So they wind up starting a conversation with a small but legitimate untruth.

Plus, if you signal the acceptable answer in the greeting: “Good?” That’s like doubling down on not really wanting to know.

Again: it’s a small thing. Most people won’t even notice that they’re shooting themselves in the rhetorical foot. But why be like most people?

Oh, I have a ton of these:

  1. “I know how you feel.”

    I think we say this because we’re trying to suggest empathy, but it rarely exists in reality. It’s hard to truly know how someone else feels, and so these five words can be unintentionally dismissive. Better to mirror back what they’ve said, like: “It sounds like you’re saying… [what they just said].”

  2. “It’s not hard.”

    This one is all over social media. Someone articulates what they see as a complicated dilemma, and someone else wants to troll them by saying the answer is obvious. Usually, it’s less about offering solutions than it is about belittling.

  3. "I don't want to fight, but..."

    No matter what you say in the second half of this sentence, it could be replaced with "...but I'm going to say something that could start a fight." Truthfully, sometimes you do have to fight. But why not own it?

  4. "You always..." (or "you never...")

    It’s not just me saying this one. Ever been in couples therapy? Ever read a book on relationships? Basically, if you generalize during an argument, you run a good risk of overstating your case and thus undermining your argument.

OK, this is where you come in. At least I hope so. If you’ve read any of my free Ubooks, you might have a sense of where I’m going with this.

Part of the plan here at Understandably is to publish a series of succinct nonfiction ebooks—free to paid subscribers, very reasonably priced for everyone else—that are designed to be read in about an hour and provide you with useful insights or actionable ideas on some topic.

As an experiment, the first one I’m working on is a short ebook that covers exactly this issue:

How to train yourself to choose words wisely, so that you don’t unintentionally undermine your goals with your word choices.

It’s coming along pretty well: kind of a compendium of word choices. Imagine Eat This, Not That, only it’s about language. (Caveat: I’ve never actually read Eat This, Not That. But Say This, Not That is a pretty good title.)

Anyway, I have never regretted asking for help from this amazing group of readers, so I would like to do that today. In short, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this whole concept:

  • Are there words or phrases that you’ve come to realize don’t mean exactly what people think they mean?

  • Sayings you’ve learned (maybe the hard way) not to use, because they can get in the way of your true point?

  • Prompts or scripts you’ve memorized to get other people to open up and talk freely? Polite ways to turn direct conversations in the way that you want them to go?

It’s a broad topic, but I’d love to hear what you come up with. If your suggestions wind up in the ebook, of course, you’ll get credit—and maybe some other cool rewards if I can be creative enough to think of something good.

Thanks for considering. We can discuss your ideas in the comments—or else, feel free as well just to reply to this newsletter (It will go directly to my inbox) or email me directly. Thanks, and have a great weekend!

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