The Strategic Retreat

5 Phrases that make you sound stupid and lazy

Sign at MacRitchie in Singapore one way only

Have you ever been in a conversation with somebody and realized, in the middle of a sentence, that you’re actually talking to an idiot? They seem normalish and then they say something like, “I’m such a Pisces”. That’s how stupid people get you, by being mostly not-stupid. Most stupid people aren’t “stupid” in an overall sense. Some of the dumbest people I’ve met have been very successful: doctors, entrepreneurs, scientists; yet they completely lack ability in other areas of intelligence. They’re like a deaf, dumb and blind kid who is really good at one particular thing. Let’s say, pinball, as a totally random example. We see that they’re really good at one task, be it pinball or accounting, and use that information to extrapolate overall intelligence. Unfortunately, intelligence just doesn’t work that way. There’s not an overall condition called “smart”. You can be a computer genius and yet know dick about extradition laws, trapping yourself in Russia, as another totally random example. The point being, people are judged and labeled on broad traits based on how they perform in small subsets of those traits. Yes, it’s not fair but life just be that way.

That being said, if you use any of the following 5 phrases I will assume you are both stupid and lazy. They should never be used, they show me that you’re uncreative and not only a poor writer/speaker but that you’re so bad at expressing yourself you’ll copy wording from somebody else who is also stupid and lazy. I won’t judge you as much as I judge people who believe in astrology but I will look down on you.

read more sticker in portland

1. Webster’s defines

Webster’s defines [word] to mean [incomplete and simplistic definition] but what it really means is [personal story and other such bullshit].

If you’ve ever used this trite bullshit cop-out of a phrase to start a speech or paper, I hate you. Not like, “Oh Cady, that top looks so much better on you than me, I just hate you”. I mean, I think you should be thrown in jail for three weeks to think about what you’ve done and how you’ve failed as a person.

No, Webster’s doesn’t define the word you’re using like that. You’re using an abridged dictionary that gives a tiny little piece of a definition. You aren’t going to blow my mind with some big revelation of what it means to you. Men have literally cut their dicks off in pursuit of compiling dictionaries, your salutatorian graduation speech isn’t going to add anything to my understanding of a word.

What you’re really saying is; I have no idea how to start what I’m writing/saying so I’m going to take the most cliched piece of trash I can think of to get me started. This is never a valid way to start a paper or speech, ever. If you’ve ever done this you should take tomorrow off, pack a lunch, walk to a park and sit there and think about what you’ve done. If you want to tell me about that time over summer break when you skinned your knee and learned the true meaning of friendship, just do it. Don’t sully Noah Webster’s good name with your train wreck of a story because you can’t write your own introduction.

bike jousting at the clown house in portland

2. It was palpable

The [description of place or situation] was so [emotional adjective] it was palpable.

Nobody says palpable unless they’re talking about a heart condition or using the tired phrasing above. Palpable: able to be felt or touched. Back when I was a little bitch and had anxiety attacks I had heart palpitations. You could feel my heart beating without even touching my chest. That’s palpable. The tension between two people who don’t like each other is not. When used this way it’s almost always used as a metaphor, and a poor one. It’s practically an idiom and is a word hardly ever written outside of its non-literal idiomatic use, which has changed the meaning to be ‘perceptible’ when used in this way. So, are you using the word as a metaphor, saying that you can feel the tension, or are you using the word by its newer definition saying you can perceive the tension? Nobody knows, probably not even you, because it’s unclear and you aren’t saying what you mean or properly conveying the situation to your audience. You’re regurgitation some hackneyed crap you’ve read in the past, hoping it sounds like something a real writer would spit out.

I have less hatred for people who use this phrasing, it’s more of a condescending pity. We all initially learn by parroting others, in the words of Joey Tribbiani, “You see something, you hear a word. I thought that’s what it was.” ‘Literally’, for example, used to mean ‘something that actually happened’ but people also used it to add emphasis. So it was used to mean ‘literally’ along with ‘exclamation mark’. Some people hearing this usage assumed that literally only meant “exclamation mark” and then started using in that way. We didn’t correct this parroting group fast enough and now Webster’s defines literally to essentially mean “exclamation mark”, along with its original meaning.

Unlike the dictionary, which records words as they are used -not as they should be used-, I am free to be much more judgmental in the poor usage of phrases. It’s not that palpable can’t or shouldn’t ever be used, it’s that the vast majority of the time it’s used it’s used in an unclear and parroting way. Unless you’re very clear about you want to say and do it well, this phrasing should be avoided.

burned books from portland fire on 15th

3. Speaks volumes

The [description of something] speaks volumes [to the characteristics of something else].

Seriously, never say this. Never write this. Never think this. It’s like saying “a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’m also trying to sound smart and failing at doing so”.

Unlike “Webster’s defines”, this one isn’t 100% bad. It’s OK to have been used once, the first time it was used. After that, no. “Silence speaks volumes”. I get that, it’s poetic and even true in a metaphorical sense. It was a great phrase to use the one time it was first written. But as it is today, in the now time, in the real world, it’s fucking lazy. “The garbage strewn in front of the house speaks volumes as to the condition of the children living inside”. No, it doesn’t. Very few things speak “volumes”, unless you’re a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ kind of person and then everything speaks volumes, which makes the phrase meaningless.

If you want to describe how a setting paints a complex overall picture, related to characters or happenings; that’s great but use your own damn words to do so. Using this phrase is shirking off your job, which is to convey a message, and putting that onus on your reader to fill in the blanks. Even that is fine, when done with deliberation and purpose but it hardly ever is. When using idioms and cliches, be aware that you’re using idioms and cliches, otherwise it’s just a cheap form of plagiarism that doesn’t add anything to your story.

my old cat in a box

4. Think outside the box

If we’re going to come up with a plan to get us out of this fiscal tailspin we’re going to have to think outside the box.

As my good friend ‘Other Jeff‘ once said, “‘think outside the box’ was a phrase fully created inside the box”. It’s less of a literary phrase and more of an Office Space-esque instruction. There is no box, there never was a box and the people who ‘think inside the box’ are the ones who constructed it. It’s a bit like labeling a portion of your staff ‘creatives’, as if programmers have no sense of aesthetics and designers have no technical ability. It’s a bullshit term created by people with too much time and responsibility on their hands.

If you have to instruct people to ‘think outside the box’ your entire office culture is flawed. It means that you defined a box and forced other people to pretend it’s there and now you’re suddenly instructing people to partially ignore your flawed construct. It’s like forcing your staff to play “the floor is lava” and then having an epiphany that the floor actually isn’t lava and you’d be more efficient if people weren’t jumping from chair to chair to get to the cafeteria. You know, except less fun. Your employees didn’t create this artificial construct, you did. You’re just undoing a small part of your restrictive culture.

And that would be fine, if that’s what was actually happening but there’s little chance you’re breaking down your illusionary walls completely, that would be too progressive and helpful. Chances are, what you’re saying is “Part of the floor isn’t lava, but I’m not going to tell you what parts. You’ll still burn and die if you step on the floor that I’ve arbitrarily decided is still lava”. Inside the box, outside the box; it’s all an imagined reality.

Singapore at the end of the day

5. At the end of the day

At the end of the day we need to ensure retention of our current user base.

Are you in Les Misérables? Oh, you are? Carry on then. For everybody else, don’t say this. It’s ambiguous and it’s overused. In current usage it means nothing. Are you talking about a situation that will exist at the end of today? No? Then don’t say it. Do you mean at the end of the year, at the end of the product roll out, do you mean as a continual goal or process to keep in mind throughout? Here’s my suggestion, say what you actually mean. That’s what communication is, whether written or verbal, whether in a business meeting or in a novel. Know what you wish to say and then say it in a way that is clear and concise. If you’re giving instructions to an audience; ambiguous metaphorical statements should be avoided, especially when that metaphor references a specific place or time that you don’t actually mean. Don’t say day when you mean year. That’s just stupid and lazy.

Just missed: ‘It is what it is’ and ‘as a mother’ but never say those either.

About Jeff Penman

Jeff is a classically underemployed philosopher and MBA student, Singapore trivia champion, seeker of happiness, truth and the perfect sandwich. He once survived for 4 months in a lean-to on the side of college housing with only a fishing license.