February 21, 2014

"Honestly," "literally," etc. as "end of discussion" markers

Earlier I took a look at the large and growing class of slang words that make it sound like you think everyone's going to call you a liar unless you explicitly tell them you're not. Honestly, literally, seriously, actually, I'm not gonna lie, and so on.

My interpretation was that these words have sprung up in response to the growing social and emotional distance among young people. If the listener doesn't believe the speaker to be trustworthy, then the speaker will have to make these elaborate displays of not being the boy who cried "wolf."

I still get that vibe when I hear young people talking like that. It's like "Hey, I know I don't normally interact with other people, and that you tend not to trust people who never open up. But I'm being honest here, and don't dismiss what I'm saying just because I rarely open up."

The more I hear these things, though, the more it sounds like there's something beyond an earnest appeal for the listener to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. It's that, plus a demand to not judge or talk back. It's an attempt to shut down any possible argument before it gets started. It comes from the aggressiveness and insistent tone that people use.

"OK, honestly, nobody's going to want to marry me."

The girl who says this is also saying, "...and don't try to tell me otherwise." End of discussion.

"I am literally going to freak the eff out."

...so don't try to talk me into a more calm mindset. I will be freaking out, nothing can be done about it, so just stay out of my way.

Then why bother making it seem like you're opening up and initiating or furthering along a conversation, when you just want to shut it down after you've said your little piece? It's like their pseudo-slutty way of dressing and acting. "Omigosh, just because I'm wearing butt-sculpting tights and a cleavage-baring top doesn't mean I want to have to, ick, deal with boys."

They only seem to be interested in interacting with their peers. They just want to have their little message or signal recognized, and that's it. Just move on once their ego has been validated from getting a pellet of recognition.

Somebody here pointed out (in a comment that I cannot find) a similar thing about "So," especially as the first word after someone else has been talking. It cuts them off, ends their line of thought, and dismisses it all as trivial. It's like, "So -- now that you're done blabbing, back to me and my piece." If it's an argument, every micro-clause will begin with "so," as in "ergo," even if there's no logical progression. It's like, "Hey, I began with 'so,' hence you must accept it."

Or they put "again" at the beginning of every clause, as though they've already established or proven the clause as fact before. Or were you not paying attention? / did you not get it the first time? / is your memory so poor that you've already forgotten and need reminding?

"Honestly," "literally," etc. fall into this broader category of discussion-enders. They contrast the world of maybe / maybe-not with the world of established fact. Not hypothetically -- actually. Not figuratively -- literally. Not jokingly -- honestly. We're not in the world of make-believe, so you must accept everything I've said and can't argue back. It's not as though this were some kind of hypothetical debate, imaginative storytelling, or jesting and joshing.

Under this reading, the trend is part of the intensification of status contests. Every listener is a potential opponent and must be pre-emptively shut down. If they insist on flapping their gums, they must be immediately dismissed when you get the chance to butt in with "So." I don't think there was anything like this in the '80s, though. "For real" from the '90s is about as early as it goes.


  1. Contaminated NEET2/21/14, 6:44 AM

    Starting your piece with "again" is a crime against humanity. It's so arrogant and condescending, and the people who do it don't even seem to see that.

  2. Why have status contests intensified? Is it just because there are more opportunities for status posturing, since so much of our lives is subject to public scrutiny via social media?

  3. I don't think there was anything like this in the '80s, though.

    Sounds right. People in the '80s were strivers who fancied their chances against any potential opponents then and liked taking their taking their time with them.

    If you're socially confident and high on positive feeling, why try to get in and out with a quick win when you can take it slow and beat 'em about a bit, really enjoy yourself and get off on it? And "That's life in the big city", and anyone else needs to toughen up.

    Probably why many folks give them a harder time than strivers today - they were not only whoring themselves and everyone they knew out to get to the top, but they were loving it too.

    Whereas today we can trick ourselves into believing today's joyless, anxious, medicated strivers are really haunted and guilty, as they don't seem to be getting their kicks (they *have* to spend their ill gotten gains on grey Priuses and organic food!), back then they couldn't have any such illusion.

    Another reason might be we don't have so many self conscious slackers these days. Underachievers and losers in the rat race are increasing at the same rate as in the 70s - 80s but are less socially confident and more ashamed about it, so don't advertise their status, instead posturing like they're actually doing something with some dumb dead end project (and its not like they have the backup of being cool to rely on).

  4. My last boss would frequently drop "well, to be totally honest with you..." into conversation. It made me think "wait, that must mean the rest of the time you aren't bring totally honest with me."

  5. "Why have status contests intensified?"

    It goes in cycles, and appears to be linked to inequality. See Peter Turchin's article in Aeon for a good overview of his theory (it's free and easily readable). Here's how it goes:

    Start when inequality is rising toward its peak. People from both the top and bottom sense that it isn't a good thing, it's fracturing society, and will blow up unless we try to rein it in. The bottom agrees to dial down their violent labor agitation (or whatever it will be this time around), and the top agrees to dial down their dog-eat-dog strategies as well. We don't need mega-status, we will make do.

    Now you have a mindset of making do and reining it in, the really intense struggle to get to the top de-escalates, and more folks are happily settled in the middle. The dog-eat-dog policies of the top tend to make the bottom worse off -- main example: immigration, which enriches the employers of cheap labor while making the competing workers accept lower wages. Now that that's calming down (e.g., when elites agreed to end immigration during the 1920s), the bottom will be lifted up. People are coming toward the middle from both extremes.

    After awhile, inequality has been falling for so long, and everybody appears to be in a mood of fair play and good sportsmanship that a few people start to wonder -- Do we really need to keep this "making do" and "reining it in" thing going? Haven't we been "making do" for long enough? It's not like it's the Gilded Age of robber barons anymore. A little striving for higher status and nicer things won't bring down the social order. I'm going to go for it.

    More and more folks come around to the same idea -- "yeah, it *has* been long enough of making do" -- and all of the sudden there's a surge in the numbers of people competing for higher status. This is roughly the 1970s, when the rate of people applying to law school and later business school starts shooting through the roof. Bill and Hillary are good early examples.

    More and more people competing for the top means that the top will come to hold a larger fraction of the population than before. The 1% became the 3%, as Turchin says. Merchants who cater to the very rich are more common than before because the top has grown heavier.

    But more often those strivers fail, and given all the costs of competition, they fall below where they started. Mainly due to debt incurred during the status contests -- particularly the debt of getting credentialed (er, I mean, "educated"), but also conspicuous consumption (new car) and conspicuous leisure (trip to Europe).

    And the dog-eat-dog drive to make it on top means you'll take stronger and stronger measures to short-change your workers, or whoever depends on you for their livelihood. Immigration, off-shoring, gutting benefits and bonuses, etc. Combined with the downward mobility of the middle (failed aspiring elites), this makes the bottom balloon.

    They get angry and start to agitate in one form or another for a fairer distribution of wealth and status (often led by a failed aspiring elite). It gets bad enough that the elites weigh the escalation from below against the marginal gain in status / wealth that they'd get from continuing the dog-eat-dog world, and decide it's no longer worth it. Time to rein things in and make do before the society blows up and we have nothing at all.

    Then we're back to where we started off in the cycle.

  6. off-topic, but you might appreciate this article(The Atlantic) about how fraternities have changed over the past 20 years, ruining college social life in the process. As can be expected, frats were far more inclusive during the 80s.

    "The official byo system is like something dreamed up by a committee of Soviet bureaucrats and Irish nuns. It begins with the composition—no fewer than 24 hours before the party—of a comprehensive guest list. This guest list does not serve the happy function of ensuring a perfect mix of types and temperaments at the festivity; rather, it limits attendance—and ensures that the frat is in possession of “a witness list in the event something does occur which may end up in court two or more years later.”"


  7. Off topic -- I'm the same anonymous as above, and I love the social commentary on this blog, but I wish you'd cut down on the gay bashing. I'm straight and happily married, conservative/libertarian even, but I just find it really cynical and negative. As obnoxious as I find the in-your-phase LGBTQ attention-whoring agenda, I believe there are plenty of gays who don't fit the descriptions you give -- enough to take it out of the realm of anecdotal evidence and into the realm of "you've got an intriguing but wrong theory."

    I'm having a kid soon and I'm trying to simplify my life down to the essentials and positive influences, but I think I'll have to scrap this blog if it continues with the gay bashing. It's a shame because you're a smart guy and you have plenty of positive things to say when it comes to music, 80s culture, healthy friendships and childhoods, etc.

  8. Steve Johnson2/21/14, 11:25 PM

    Hear that? He's really concerned about you.

    He's worried.

  9. Good contribution, Steve. Look, you can be smug fag-haters all you want, but it just makes you look insecure. What battle do you have to win? Did you have a bad breakup or something? Along with the contempt for current pop culture, it just screams "low status." Probably if you were writing in the 80s, you would write about how much better the 60s were.

    There are thoughtful posts on this blog that I'd consider forwarding to other people were it not for all the nearby homophobia in social science's clothing.

  10. Steve Johnson2/22/14, 12:32 PM

    Wow, now you're concerned about me too!

    I'm touched.

  11. you don't wanna discuss the issue do you?


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