Two Expressions to Fiercely Avoid
At the top of the heap of truly terrible English platitudes: “it is what it is.” Christ, I don’t even like writing it. I must admit that I used it for years, until a friend of mine called me out for tossing around such an empty expression, and he was right. Think about it literally… what a ridiculous thing to say.
Example: An old pal gets laid off and is barely getting by on unemployment. “Hey man, it is what it is,” is the equivalent of saying “Hey man, you seem to be desperately unemployed and you actually are desperately unemployed.” Why would anyone say that? I guess it’s supposed to put one at ease about a situation that’s out of control, but the saying actually means nothing, which makes it a wholly useless consolation. Thank you, valued friend, for pointing out to me that, yes — IT really is what IT is. Now IT all makes sense and I can live again.
A more thoughtful friend might say something beyond a declaration of 1+2 = 1+2. “I’m so sorry. Do you want me to set your boss’ car on fire?” That’s sympathy, loyalty, and willingness to exact revenge on another’s behalf… hallmarks of true friendship. Even totally hopeless advice can have some sense of meaning and direction, like a line from The Big Lebowski, “Fuck it dude, let’s go bowling.” That’s helpful – a funnier way of suggesting to let it go and do what feels good. Nothing wrong with that, and a hell of a lot more useful than “it is what it is.”
Equally unhelpful as “it is what it is” is its close cousin, “it could be worse.” This expression is, ironically, the worst way of expressing empathy. Of course it could always be worse. So what? “Oh wow I’m sorry to hear you shattered your ankle in a car accident. Well, could be worse… you could be in a Nazi concentration camp.” I promise, no person worth the trouble of consolation would take lasting comfort from knowing that someone out there has it REAL bad.
“It could be worse,” is accurately translated as, “I have no actual perspective on this matter and nothing meaningful to offer.” This is perfectly all right, by the way, but you might as well just say that instead. It’s more honest, at least, and you’re less likely to leave a friend like me silently wishing you’d take your terrible expressions elsewhere.
<– PREVIOUS ••• NEXT –>
© 2012, Ian Mathias
I propose an additional phrase that seems to be the calling card of people who are very detrimental to your life/career:
“Perception is reality.”
As soon as I hear that remark, made towards myself or someone else, I generally start looking for the exit. Just because someone wants to be lazy and ignorant by not paying enough attention does not mean that is the reality.
While it’s true that perception isn’t reality (obviously) I think this expression is a helpful reminder that much of what we consider part of reality is actually perception. We all start out as nieve realists when we’re children and this is even reflected in our language. For example, we rarely say: “that food tastes delicious to me” but rather “that food IS delicious.”
The saying “It is what it is,” while being a semantically null statement in and of itself, has always carried (at least in my opinion) an implied second clause something along the lines of “… and it’s disappointing you have no ability to change it.” It implies that whatever “it” is, it is something out of the listener’s control, and that they will just have do make the adjustments to live with “it.” Perhaps this isn’t what the phrase means at all, and I’ve simply attached meaning of my own, but it seems that this is how it is commonly used.
“You can’t control this and need to make adjustments” is amazing advice! 100x better than “it is what it is.”
I always took “it is what it is” to be an existential statement reminding the listener that the situation lacks any inherent polarity. In other words, you can feel desperate about being unemployed, but your emotional reaction to the situation doesn’t alter the facts (unemployment), it just colors them. You could just as easily be “optimistically unemployed.”
May I just quickly point out that one does not ‘extract revenge,’ but rather exacts it?
Other than that tiny mistake, I’m loving your writing so far. Beautiful advice, can’t wait to continue reading!
Great catch, fixed. And thanks for reading!
I’m awful at consolation and I know it, and I tend to fall back on the “it could be worse” style of responses coupled with some humor because that works on me. What would be a better course of action? Or am I forever doomed to just being bad at this sort of thing if I’m unable to answer that question myself?
This is very contrary to what you say in “you are most likely average”, you do know
As long as Ian touched on the way we phrase our words–and how nuance can sometimes be misinterpreted…I’ll just be blunt so as to prevent confusion…
John, don’t be a smartass. No one likes ’em… And I’ll just state this (ironically) as if it were my own blog: This is not your blog–so if you’d like to start a discussion over something you read, then do it in a manner that makes you seem like less of a douche…
And by all means, John, please follow my blog at http://www.thewellroundedman.com . (Just winning over new readers left and right…ha)
You should read #4 I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you haven’t yet. There is a kind of contradiction and no reason to be an asset instead of talking about it.
You already wrote a form of “it could be worse” by implying earlier that by having access to the internet you have it better than most (and should appreciate it). So if “it could be worse” should be avoided so should “look how good you have it comparatively” as well, imo. I personally like both phrases as they are so true that people often forget the fact that they are true.
reductio ad hitlerum
I think you are being a little literal here. I use this expression when a situation occurs that cannot be changed. It is a form of acceptance for me. I would never use it the way you have above. If someone loses there job I would never say “it is what it is” because it can change. I have actually come to use “it is what it is” as a tool to not get pissed off at things that cannot change. For example, what’s the use in getting upset if I drop and break my phone. “It is what it is.” Nothing I do is going to change what just happened. When used in that context I think it can be helpful.
And although I hate the expression “it could be worse,” I may actually have some value when used in the opposite manner you explained. My wife’s grandmother survived all six years of the Holocaust and the Auschwitz concentration camp while her 11 brothers and sister and her parents were killed. Every time something bad happened she used to always compare it to the worst experience she had. We once stayed in an old motel and she very sharply said “it’s better than what Hitler gave me.” I don’t have that perspective but I suppose that she had the “benefit” of your worst case scenario and everything after that seemed better by comparison.
There’s always another way to look at things.
*take lasting comfort
I agree, those are a couple of the laziest/needless expressions I’ve ever heard. as an introvert, i prefer to live by the adage, ‘if you’ve got nothing interesting to say, don’t say anything at all.’ if someone is in a truly shitty situation, sometimes there are no ‘right words.’ but there are certainly a few wrong ones
Thanks Ruth… and I certainly agree.
(P.S. Go introverts!)