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.

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© 2012, Ian Mathias