No! I am not asking if you are sick of An Old Cop’s Place. I am wondering if anyone else is sick of one of the newer gimmicks, speech impediments or habits in the public speaking arena. So, are you?
Yes, this piece is a bit of a rant concerning the overuse, likely misuse and really annoying use of the word so. It is rapidly becoming the equivalent of like from a few decades ago. I am surprised I have not heard a comedian do a riff on so as they did with like over the years.
In the interest of full disclosure I must admit, I too have taken license in using the word so at times. Also for the record, I never, I mean never, started any sentences with like. Unless, satire was involved.
Occasionally taking liberties with a coordinating conjunction seems to help make the written word a little easier to read and understand. That is especially true for those who write in prose that is more than a collection of simple sentences, such as this writer. On the other hand, taking such liberties regularly, writing or speaking, leaves something to be desired.
OneOldCop first noticed this trend earlier this year. A research scientist was answering questions on a morning radio show. He was being questioned about research indicating the legionella bacteria (Legionnaire’s Disease) could be found in unlikely places.1 When asked a direct question, every answer began with so.
The interviewer asked why the scientist and his group looked for the bacteria in a particular location. The response was, “So, … we were looking for bacterial growth in places one might not expect.” The interviewer went on to ask the researcher why they chose the specific place where Legionnaires was found, what the risk was to the public, and other questions one would expect. The researcher started every answer with the word so.
It was maddening, at least to this writer. Of course, one knows what happens when something new, good or bad, stimulates a response of some sort. You begin to see or hear the same stimulus everywhere.
For example, if a person buys a new yellow car, every time he or she drives the new yellow car, the road seems flooded with yellow cars just like his. In other cases, people become sensitized to a specific number, a time of day, a song, or any number of other stimuli. For example, this writer knows a number of people who notice when the time is 9:11. Any guesses as to why they notice that number?
The word so fell into this category for this writer. Since that morning, it seems every public speaker, every talking head, every so-called expert responds to questions with a sentence beginning with so. If the affectation was only occasional, one might be able to forgive it. Sadly, once one is infected with the so bug it seems every response begins, “So, . . .”
The reality is everyone has not been afflicted by the word in question. Yet, it crops up often enough to grab the attention of some academicians and others in search of a publishable piece. It is also a reality that this is not a new phenomenon. Just conduct an internet search with the phrase, beginning sentences with so.
You will find this linguistic device has been around for a number of years. Periodically it irritates or interests someone enough to research and write about it. Another reality is that this particular linguistic habit does not make one appear smarter.
It is true that some who first adopted this speaking pattern were among the upper levels of the IQ curve. Academicians, programmers and scientists appear to be the focal point of several articles covering the issue over the last fifteen years. Some defend it as a communications tool which allows one to sound more engaged and sincere. Others, such as this writer, feel it is an annoying habit people have adopted, intentionally or by unconsciously mimicking others.
It would be interesting if one could trace this back to patient zero. That is, find out which speaker first started using this technique, and determine how he or she infected others. If that were possible, one would likely discover the person adopting this pattern of speaking wished to appear more thoughtful. In fact, at least one so-called expert has written that the use of the word can make one seem more deliberative and interested. It certainly is a better word than uh, which many people have unconsciously employed the past.1 Still, the constant use of a conjunction can become irritating and distracting.
Speakers do want to appear deliberative and interested at times. They also want to connect with their audience in some way. Whether it is an audience of one or thousands, one goal is to make a connection. Another goal is to avoid sounding like an idiot. For the record, there are better ways to accomplish these goals.
In this writer’s experience affectations of this sort come about in one of two ways. First, a person is trying to correct a bad habit, or develop a way to appear measured in his or her response to questions. Second, the person has simply adopted the habits of someone else. Consider the example mentioned earlier. Some people are afflicted with the uh bug. That is, they begin comments or responses with uh or use it to break sentences or paragraphs into sections.
Sometimes, they use such a pause for formulating thoughts. Sometimes they use it to help clarify a response. Sometimes they use it because they have no idea what to say next. Whatever the reason, regularly using the word uh makes one appear less than polished. Again, there are better ways to pace one’s speech and connect.
One of the best pieces of advice this writer ever received as a public speaker concerned the use of silence. This writer was blessed with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. In a lecture or speaking mode, this meant it was possible , in many cases, for OneOldCop to listen to a person’s comment or question and respond almost immediately. There is, unfortunately, a problem with that sort of gift.
A speaker responding too quickly to a question may leave his or her audience feeling he did not really listen. Either that, or he did not really think about his answer. Accordingly, it may be appropriate to pause before responding. A short period of thoughtful silence before responding helps a speaker connect with the person asking the question, and with others hearing the exchange.3 While this technique works quite well, it is not perfect.
Those who were watching the coverage of the World Trade Center attack undoubtedly remember the moment of silence when President Bush was told about the second plane hitting the second tower. Nothing the president did or said at that moment would have gone uncriticized, but the silence was an easy target. Still, a poignant pause prior to responding to a question is better than further bastardization of the English language in an attempt to appear in tune with the times.
1. Given the current “Ebola Scare” in the United States and other areas of the world, there is no real danger of the spread of Legionaire’s Disease. The primary unexpected place it was found was the windshield washing system in motor vehicles. Buses if my recall is correct. If one were irrigating his nose with the windshield washer spray, infection might be a possibility. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
2. This writer could not locate the source, but I have read and heard people defend the use of uh and other sounds as unconscious devices that help one focus on the answer needed or the point to be made. Usually justification of this sort comes from the mouth or pen of a political spinmeister trying to justify the fact his client sounds like a buffoon.
3. Other tactics may be used instead of silence. For example, commenting on the question or repeating it may help. A simple “Thanks for the question,” or “Good question” comment can serve the same purpose and keep a speaker from appearing to be an automaton. It also allows for time to formulate an answer if needed.
© S.E. Jackson – 2014