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I like big "But..."s and I always lie!
November 27, 2010 11:43 AM   Subscribe

I hate to be the one to link to this, but...
So what do you think this linguistic practice should be called? “lying qualifiers?” “false fronts?” “wishwashers?” “but-heads?” Heh heh heh...
posted by oneswellfoop (101 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Euphemintros.
posted by inedible at 11:46 AM on November 27, 2010


Segnoues.
posted by defenestration at 11:46 AM on November 27, 2010


I hope next they take on my personal peeve, answering a question with, "Well, do you want the truth?"

"Eh...no. Lie to me. But wait! I'll know it's a lie, so then I will know the TRUTH! Such a pickle your counter-question has put me in!"
posted by mreleganza at 11:49 AM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Honestly, onefellswoop, starting a sentance with "Honestly" followed by my first name always makes me sick to the stomach with dread.
posted by amethysts at 11:52 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not that I think you're stupid or anything, but there is already a well-established word for this in academic circles: Æåowhegfqowbøgv.
posted by Dumsnill at 11:52 AM on November 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


“If I say ‘no offense,’ maybe he won’t punch me!”

So thats why my monitor has a restraining order.
posted by clavdivs at 11:53 AM on November 27, 2010


So if these words are so clearly dishonest that they’re essentially signals of dishonesty, what’s the motivation for hiding behind them?

Plausible deniability (of rudeness, in this case) and attempted avoidance of social consequences. Duh.
posted by Gator at 11:56 AM on November 27, 2010


"I don't mean to sound racist, but..."
posted by rmd1023 at 11:57 AM on November 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Replace "honestly" with "candidly". As in, "Can I be candid, Bob"? Also, eliminating "but" and replacing it with "and" is wonderfully liberating.
posted by drinkcoffee at 11:58 AM on November 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Euphemintros.

Segnoues.


As an amateur of rhetoric, I have always loved how some of the more obscure terms look like bad Scrabble hands.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:02 PM on November 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


Also, eliminating "but" and replacing it with "and" is wonderfully liberating.

I believe there is a chapter toward the end of "How to win friends and influence people" about replacing but with and. I'm a nerd with poor people handling skills and that book is incredibly useful to me. Learned many things I prevoisly didn't understand.
posted by SirOmega at 12:05 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hwaet. Lo. Listen up. Yo. It is a useful dramatic device to begin a sentence with a redundant word or phrase, which creates a moment of suspense, especially if that particular phrase indicates that emotional, dramatic or important content is to follow.

So linguists, I hate to have to tell you this, but go too far in your quest to eliminate subjective aesthetic values from your discipline, and you risk eliminating the aesthetic and dramatic qualities from your language too.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:06 PM on November 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Then there's the text-only version, a favorite of passive-hostile office colleagues and moody internet friends alike: ending an insult with a smiley face.

You bunch of basement-dwelling perverts.

:-)
posted by 7-7 at 12:08 PM on November 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


NOT THAT YOU CARE, BUT DO YOU HEAR THAT, LINGUISTS?!
posted by Dumsnill at 12:09 PM on November 27, 2010


I will be completely straightforward with everyone here by stating that this linguistic practice should be called
...uh, I really forgot...
posted by Namlit at 12:09 PM on November 27, 2010


I say that with all due respect... (NSFW language)
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:10 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"With all due respect" at least provides cover by its ambiguity. It doesn't specify exactly how much respect, if any, the speaker thinks is due. So "with all due respect, you're a complete twat" contains no contradiction.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:11 PM on November 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


A lot of this stuff is everyday social lube. It's really quite necessary.

If I say, "no offense, but it seems to me that the article overstates it's case", then I'm much less likely to get punched by someone who passionately believes the article is the received word itself. But I'm also much more likely to be able to have a reasonable discussion about the article than if I'd said "Look, this article is just a bunch of poorly supported pedantry, and you're an arsehat".

Little diplomacy goes a long way.
posted by Ahab at 12:12 PM on November 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


From Ambrose Bierce's wonderful Devil's Dictionary:
HONORABLE, adj. Afflicted with an impediment in one's reach. In legislative bodies it is customary to mention all members as honorable; as, "the honorable gentleman is a scurvy cur."
posted by 7-7 at 12:14 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I usually think of these as the "stealth broach," as in "Way to stealth broach my money troubles, jerk."
posted by MimeticHaHa at 12:16 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you are talking to someone who would actually, literally punch you for offending them, then you are dealing with a mentally unstable individual. Back away.

If you want to avoid offending someone because you don't like to, or because you want them to think well of you, then couching your offensive sentence inside a disclaimer isn't going to help, it just stacks a lie on top of the offense you're about to give.

Pointing out people's flaws to them without offending them requires that you get them into a receptive frame of mind. This can't be done by formula. Different people require different things in order to be comfortable with criticism, and those needs change with time and context. If you genuinely want people to take your criticism, you need to engineer a situation where they are comfortable taking your criticism. This may be difficult.

But-heads are a way of pretending that you've set up such a situation when you haven't. They might be useful if you want to convince some third party that you are considerate. But if you're not really considerate, then giving the impression of being considerate only serves to gain political points.

If that's your thing, go nuts.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:20 PM on November 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm just sayin'...
posted by sourwookie at 12:25 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


My dog never does this... ever...
posted by HuronBob at 12:25 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love those Euphemintros ads. They're so goofy. I guess they make sense to Europeans.
posted by adamrice at 12:27 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's like a showcase of office talk!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:30 PM on November 27, 2010


Not to sound like a snob, but I was into this phenomenon way before you all showed up.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:30 PM on November 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


If you are talking to someone who would actually, literally punch you for offending them, then you are dealing with a mentally unstable individual. Back away.

Well, anyone who beats you up for offending them isn't your friend.
posted by Gator at 12:30 PM on November 27, 2010


Not to sound like a snob, but I was into this phenomenon way before you all showed up.
This may rub you the wrong way but let's just agree to disagree.
posted by Namlit at 12:39 PM on November 27, 2010


It's not like I am sexiest motherfucker to ever step into this here room, but...
posted by idiopath at 12:43 PM on November 27, 2010


'Chapter IV: Metaphysical Ethics.
In this chapter I propose to deal with a type of ethical theory which is exemplified in the ethical views of the Stoics, of Spinoza, of Kant, and especially of a number of modern writers, whose views in this respect are mainly due to the influence of Hegel. These ethical theories have this in common, that they use some metaphysical proposition as a ground for inferring some fundamental proposition of Ethics. They all imply, and many of them expressly hold, that ethical truths follow logically from metaphysical truths—that Ethics should be based on Metaphysics. And the result is that they all describe the Supreme Good in metaphysical terms.'

- Moore, Principia Etnhica
posted by clavdivs at 12:47 PM on November 27, 2010


and a typo
posted by clavdivs at 12:49 PM on November 27, 2010


I'm sorry you feel that way.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:50 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not a racist or anything, but that was a pretty interesting article.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:50 PM on November 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Hwaet. Lo. Listen up. Yo. It is a useful dramatic device to begin a sentence with a redundant word or phrase, which creates a moment of suspense, especially if that particular phrase indicates that emotional, dramatic or important content is to follow.

So linguists, I hate to have to tell you this, but go too far in your quest to eliminate subjective aesthetic values from your discipline, and you risk eliminating the aesthetic and dramatic qualities from your language too.


Speak! Lay it on me. I'm all ears. Yeah, linguist here, and I think the author sounds like a bit of a twit. People talk the way they do because it works, either for practical or aesthetic reasons or whatever. The interesting question is "Why do they find this thing useful?" and not "Why must these ignorant motherfuckers insist on doing this thing that I've decided to assume is useless?"

One thing I think this stuff does, besides creating anticipation, is it makes it clear that the speaker knows how he's coming across. Some really blunt statements can leave you wondering, "Does this guy even realize how that sounded? Shit, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's totally socially clueless and devoid of empathy and I should just avoid the hell out of him from now on." Slap one of these puppies on there and it's like, "Well, okay, that stung a little and clearly we disagree about some shit, but at least I know I'm talking to a human being with empathy and self-awareness rather than some kind of hideously tacky controversy-spewing robot."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:50 PM on November 27, 2010 [24 favorites]


Sure, but Moore, what is it good for?
posted by Dumsnill at 12:51 PM on November 27, 2010


"Don't think I have a sense of humor, but" is a sign the person you're listening to or reading has absolutely no sense of humor. They laugh when they fart (sometimes) and when people are hurt, and that's good enough for them.

Some of these are social lube. When you get a new car and your buddy blurts out "this color sucks" it's still just his opinion, but it sounds like a proclamation of universal fact. When he says "Don't take this the wrong way, but this color sucks," it seems much more like a personal opinion than a universal truth, and is easier to live with.

These "but-heads" are often a way of saying "what I'm about to say is kind of harsh but I still [like, want to work for, love, respect] you" and might even be necessary in a situation where you're friendly but not BFF with the person you're talking to.

Just sayin'.
posted by maxwelton at 12:52 PM on November 27, 2010


And my lead-in was missing a "not" which makes it seem pretty dumb. Don't think I don't have a sense of humor about it, though, despite my grim, stony silence.
posted by maxwelton at 12:55 PM on November 27, 2010


These phrases are great, they let the speaker eat their cake and have it too.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 1:02 PM on November 27, 2010


I'm not saying my mother-in-law is fat, but I had to invade Europe just so she could sit down.
posted by tigrefacile at 1:09 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with the linguist, nebulawindphone… not that there's anything wrong with being a linguist. Some of my closest friends are linguists. My father is a linguist. Heck, even I'm a linguist.
posted by readyfreddy at 1:11 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"...no homo."
posted by Sys Rq at 1:13 PM on November 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


We're all sometimes guilty of wanting to eat our cake and have it too.

["We're all sometimes guilty of" often goes with "and", or "so". "We're all sometimes guilty of being complete nincompoops, so you have no right to your holier-than-thou-attitude." I truly hate to break this to you all, btw.]
posted by Namlit at 1:17 PM on November 27, 2010


Recent conversation:

"I shouldn't tell this story about you, but..."
"No buts. If you shouldn't tell this story, don't tell it."

Now, this was a fairly tremendous breach of social protocol. But it was also invited. Two tensions were going on:

1) What a fun story to tell right now!
2) What an embarrassing thing for this other person!

Resolution: "Lets make the other person decide if it's so embarrassing, they're willing to expend social capital to retain their honor, which is itself embarrassing."

This isn't linguistics. It's social dynamics, a totally separate reality. There's meta-messaging going on, but it's all based on standing.
posted by effugas at 1:28 PM on November 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


"With all due respect" at least provides cover by its ambiguity.

Sometimes. I'm a lawyer, and a few years ago my partner actually received a letter that began: "Dear Mr. Jones: With all due respect, you cannot have been sober when you wrote your letter of August 14th . . . "
posted by The Bellman at 1:29 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


F'rinstance, okay, to go straight for the controversial example: a guy who says "I'm not a racist, but..." — he knows that he's about to offend some people. And as far as I can tell, the point of the disclaimer is to broadcast that knowledge.

"Look, I know this story will offend some of you. Of course I know that — I'm not stupid. I mean, a stupid guy might say shit this offensive by accident. But me, I'm setting out to offend you on purpose, because I bet I'm the biggest cleverest most daring motherfucker in this whole bar. Now you've got two choices: either agree with me and prove I'm the smartest, or get in a shouting match and I'll beat you and prove I'm the smartest. But whatever you do, don't get all 'poor guy doesn't know what he's saying.' I know just what I'm saying. Your move."

It's like a two-year-old who looks right at you before carefully pushing his sippy cup off the edge of the table. "I'm not just clumsy," the two-year-old is saying. "Babies are clumsy and spill their milk by accident. I'm independent and not a baby at all anymore and so I'm gonna spill my milk on purpose. Now what, you oedipally-enraging motherfuckers?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:29 PM on November 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


Bless her heart... I don't mean to trivialize your pain, but... I'm sorry, but...

I hate to admit it, but I actually use some of these faux qualifiers more often than I would wish.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:43 PM on November 27, 2010


Qualifauxers?
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:47 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


This might be tough to hear but I'm going to take one for the team and say I'm 110% on board with effugas's point about social dynamics.

In most cases language constructs like that are a way of telegraphing intention (I'm going to say something offensive/disadvantageous to you) with a disclaimer (I KNOW it's offensive, but because I'm admitting I know it you shouldn't get mad at me).

I think they have their place but my experience is that more and more they just mean "I'm about fuck you over, brace yourself/I want you to see it coming so I can enjoy it."
posted by dolface at 1:49 PM on November 27, 2010


I also want give a shout-out to oneswellfoop for the title 'cause it's kind of genius
posted by dolface at 1:52 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


No to be the lfy in the ointment, effugas, but discourse analysis is indeed a sub-discipline of linguistics.
posted by readyfreddy at 1:56 PM on November 27, 2010


quite frankly, and I mean that. no shit.
posted by victors at 1:57 PM on November 27, 2010


Quite frankly, the preceding phrase seems pretty straightforward.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:10 PM on November 27, 2010


I had an ex once whose favorite damn thing to start every sentence with was "with all due respect..." Man do I hate that phrase now! (He was a condescending jerk for the entire duration of our relationship.) I should've been like "really? You're gonna go with the pseudo grown up equivalent of 'no offense'?"
posted by ifjuly at 2:14 PM on November 27, 2010


...."the device of the device of procatalepsis..."I don’t believe you — you’re just trying to hurt my feelings.”

MARK. F$%@ING. TWAIN!
SIR.
posted by clavdivs at 2:16 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of this stuff is everyday social lube. It's really quite necessary.

If I say, "no offense..." ... I'm much less likely to get punched... [then] if I'd said "Look, this article is just a bunch of poorly supported pedantry, and you're an arsehat".


I assume you're exaggerating to make a point, but I've noticed that a lot of people really do think these two extremes are the only options. For instance, why the "you're an arsehat"? I know, I know: that's a joke. But it stacks the deck in favor of "no offense."

Part of the problem is that phrases like "no offense" are cliches and everyone knows they are. Everyone knows they slip off the tongue with no effort, which is why they fail as social lubricators.

I think it's okay to send a message of "I'm sorry that what I'm about to say may offend you. That's not my intent, but I'm going to say it, because it's an important point to me..." But doing that with "no offense, but" seems like you don't actually care. It's like saying, "Happy birthday. Here's a present," and then giving someone a stick of gum. I mean, I know that you DON'T care. You don't care if you offend me. You just don't want to get punched. But if I don't buy the fact that you're making an effort on my behalf, why would I hold off on the fisticuffs?

If you take just a couple of extra seconds, it makes a big difference: "It sounds like 'Star Wars' is one of your favorite movies, so I feel a bit awkward about saying this, but..." Or "You know, I have some reservations about the current administration. I know you're a supporter, but is it okay with you if I share my thoughts?" Even if these statements have the same meaning as "no offense, but," I can tell that you're taking the time to craft them specially for me rather than using a prefabricated blurt.

The other problem with "no offense, but..." is that it often doesn't even sound like an attempt at plausible deniability. It sounds like sarcasm. This is especially obvious when what follows is over-the-top offensive: "No offense, but you're ugly and I fucked your mom." The "no offense" is like a sprinkling of salt in the wound. (It's even more obvious when it comes at the end: "You're ugly and I fucked your mom. No offense.") Maybe I'm alone, but I often hear a shade of sarcasm in under-the-top statements like "no offense, but that music you're listening to is horrible!"
posted by grumblebee at 2:37 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


There was just a discussion about this topic on the local NPR station, KUOW. I Don't Mean To Interrupt, But Listen To This had Erin McKean from Wordnik, and some amusing call-in examples.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 2:37 PM on November 27, 2010


This brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend recently about words people say that might sound like compliments but which are actually pretty non-committal and are sometimes used to conceal negative opinions. "This is a pretty interesting report you've written," "That's a unique perspective," "I can't say I've ever seen a haircut quite like that." I don't find these annoying, though, on the contrary - I think this category of phrasing is fascinating. We also couldn't think of what these phrasings are called, beyond "politely elusive".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I'm not being funny, right, but ..."

Form of words common in the (Outer East London/Essex Fringe) office in which I work. It's a kind of throat-clearing, flagging up some possible point of friction in what is about to be said, meaning, as far as I can tell, "what I am about to say could be seen as being mildly socially abnormal, but in fact it should not be seen that way, it should be seen as quite normal and even laudable". So: "I'm not being funny, right, but shouldn't you pay for something after you broke it?". Well, yes. Your point is presumably that such a course of action is NOT a "funny", that is, peculiar one to take - so how has this qualifier come about?

I started to notice it, and now I'm absolutely fixated on it. When I hear it, it's almost hard to hear the rest of the sentence, I'm seized by a desire to grab the other person by the lapels and shout: "WHAT? WHAT DO YOU MEAN? WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHEN YOU SAY THAT? HOW FUNNY? IN WHAT WAY? ARE YOU BEING FUNNY THE REST OF THE TIME? SHOULD I STOP PAYING ATTENTION TO YOU AFTER YOU SAY THAT? OR SHOULD I ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO THOSE REMARKS PREFACED BY THAT, BECAUSE EVERYTHING ELSE YOU SAY IS SOME SORT WITTICISM? GIVE ME YOUR MEANING! SURRENDER YOUR MYSTERIES!"

It feels good to get that off my chest.

Here's another one: in any op-ed, commentary or first-person journalism, I am wary of the phrase "let's be honest" or "let's face it". Generally it prefaces a completely unsupported statement, a dubious position based on the shakiest empirical grounds, or plucked out of the air, such as some baseless old saw or urban myth, or supposition, or fraudulent generalisation. But the author doesn't want to have to prove it or back it up (because they can't) so they time to shield it from examination with that ridiculous disclaimer. What it really means is "Here is the prejudice I am basing this article on; kindly do not question it, otherwise my rhetorical house of cards will collapse."

I know I have used it, and it eats me up inside. Now I do all I can to avoid it.
posted by WPW at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


However, I can see the value of "with all due respect". It reminds the other person that you do respect them, and that your overall esteem for them should not be forgotten when considering the criticism you are about to make. However, this only works if you actually do respect the person you're talking with - if you don't, it's just cant, and obviously cant.
posted by WPW at 2:43 PM on November 27, 2010


No to be the lfy in the ointment, effugas, but discourse analysis is indeed a sub-discipline of linguistics.

Not to be pedantic or anything, readyfreddy, but plenty of scholars who are NOT linguists do discourse analysis.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:46 PM on November 27, 2010


Pardon my French, but you're an asshole.
posted by deadcowdan at 3:09 PM on November 27, 2010


Pardon my French, mais je ne vous veux aucun mal, sans rancune, it does seem to fall under the umbrella of "bad faith".
posted by fraula at 3:15 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a particular soft spot for the very British "I think you'll find..." [+ correction]. It's the next best thing to standing up, waving a big orange flag and shouting, "Attention! Insufferably smug pedantry ahead!" Whatever follows it, like the word "literally", is almost guaranteed comedy.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:18 PM on November 27, 2010


I value your opinion, DiscourseMaker, but I was responding to the original assertion that "this isn't linguistics", when, in fact, it could be. Not that others don't do DA.
posted by readyfreddy at 3:19 PM on November 27, 2010


man EVERY time my husband wants to start a new topic he says "not to change the subject, BUT...."

now at least I'll have something specific to accuse him of!
posted by supermedusa at 3:25 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do not mean to pry, but you don't by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?
posted by bwg at 3:26 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


As a karate expert, I have to say yeah, some of those get my blood boiling before the rest of the sentence even comes out.

Honestly though, "with all due respect" serves an important function, if it is properly employed - with respect.

"No offense intended", is used to inform or point out a negative attribute to the listener as a matter of fact, but without the pejorative connotations. Again, used properly, with respect and honesty, it isn't a lying qualifier, quite the opposite.
posted by Xoebe at 3:26 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, what WPW said, several comments above me. :\
posted by Xoebe at 3:28 PM on November 27, 2010


I don't mean to snark, but . . .


Who am I kidding?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:42 PM on November 27, 2010


I'm not sure, but does "at the end of the day" count as one of these? Because that is unbearable.
posted by brundlefly at 4:04 PM on November 27, 2010


Back in my student days, a German in pre-Schengen Amsterdam, I needed a stamp from the immigration police (as it was called) in my passport every year. Of course they checked where the previous stamp was, and of course they never stamped in any particlar order.

Bored official, about as young as I was, flipping halfheartedly through the back pages of my passport:
"you've been studying how many years in Holland?"
"Well, I said, four years."
"How come there is no trace of this in your passport?"
"The previous stamps are all there."

Guy flips some more, half averted, holding the passport at arms length like an old herring parcel. Voice endlessly tired:

"I may be blind, but..." ...trailing off.

So I kept my calm (I did), asked (tersely) to have my passport back, searched for the stamp, showed him, received a wordless excuseless new stamp, and left.

Note to self: Use the phrase "I may be blind but..." only if you're in a position of power, or it will hit you square across your eyes. The things I wanted to say to that guy!
posted by Namlit at 4:05 PM on November 27, 2010


It's clumsy attempt at manners for people who weren't raised right is all. The problem goes way deeper than this kind of locution. Southerners have it right. Never say anything rude to anyone except on purpose.

I have a particular soft spot for the very British "I think you'll find..."

Eh. A certain kind of class conscious and insecure but overly clever middle class Britisher, more to be pitied than censured.

That said, I do enjoy Alan Davies who does not seem to fall into that category in this bit.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:22 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ha. When I was about 19 and a college sophomore, some master's student came and sat next to me and my best friend in the dining hall. He chatted with us for a bit. Then, for some reason (I don't remember what we were talking about at the time), he said to me "I don't mean to offend you, but you're very pleasantly proportioned." Man, did that piss me off. I was certain he was just trying to say "Hey, you're fat!" Afterwards my best friend and I always referred to him as Mr. Unpleasantly Proportioned, since he was very skinny with an enormous head, resembling a lollipop more than anything else.

It pisses me off even more now, because 1) 19-year-old duvatney WAS very pleasantly proportioned, according to photographic evidence 2) he made me think I was fat, which I wasn't! 3) I wasn't asking for his damn opinion on my proportions in the first place; I was just sitting there existing.

And yes, this article is right; I started getting pissed off the moment "I don't mean to offend you, but..." came out of his mouth. So maybe we should all just banish these phrases. Or only use them for evil, rather than (misguidedly) for good.
posted by duvatney at 4:27 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Most of these aren't really deceptive, because in most cases, the listener understands the lie. The example of this I like is what you do when someone farts while you're in a crowded elevator. The correct response is to ignore it, even if you know who did it. Ostensibly, this is to protect them from embarrassment, and maintain the illusion that anyone could be responsible for the smell.

The problem with this interpretation is that the same rule holds when there is only one other person in the elevator, you still pretend that you don't smell anything. But since there are only two people, nothing is being covered up by your silence. Both you and the farter know who did it, and they know you are just pretending not to notice. But it would still be rude to say it out loud, or even to indicate it by moving to the other side of elevator. For Lacan, social rules can only be explained by reference to a third, virtual person, a sort of imaginary parental figure called the Big Other who is assumed to be watching what goes on in the elevator. You don't feel embarrassment just because some literal other knows you farted, only when the Big Other becomes aware that you farted. In some sense, we take strangers to be representatives of the Big Other, so we are on our best behavior. That's why the transition in the relationship between two people from strangers to friends is so often marked by the ritual breaking of a taboo, such as the exchange of obscenities, i.e. language that the Big Other prohibits us from using. I use it with a friend to signal that we don't need to look over our shoulders, the gaze of the Big Other has been suspended so we can be "real". That's why the real way to relieve someone's discomfort about farting in the elevator is for you to fart yourself. Since we've both violated the taboo, it creates a secret bond of solidarity between us.

In the case of:
your buddy blurts out "this color sucks" it's still just his opinion, but it sounds like a proclamation of universal fact
The Big Other is the ultimate authority or registrar of universal facts, so here your buddy appears to register this fact with it. There are two ways to avoid this: "Just my opinion, but this color sucks!" which is basically disclaiming to speak to the Big Other. Or, "This color sucks! But have you seen my car, it's even worse, lol!" We assume no-one would humiliate themselves in the eyes of the Big Other, so this statement doesn't notify it that your car's color sucks and you aren't humiliated. This is what's behind the Oscar Wilde quote: "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." Why do they kill you? For exposing them in the eyes of the Big Other. When you tell a joke, the same information is conveyed, but through the medium of comedy, the performative dimension of having said it is concealed, so that now I know (that my car sucks, etc.), but assume that the Big Other doesn't. But why do we care what the Big Other thinks of us at all? The problem is that we are split off from ourselves in the Other. Who am I? My face, which is how others see me, or my name, which is how others talk about me. Who am I for myself? An indeterminate nothing, a void, an open space of possibility. To escape from this nothing, I attach myself to the appearance of knowing, the gaze of the Other who (mis)recognizes me as a determinate something, and in exchange I must deal with the issues of shame, respect, embarrassment, guilt, sin, high or low self-esteem, etc.

One objection is that most people don't seem to literally believe in an invisible Other looking over their shoulder all the time. But this is because belief in the Other is often denied and projected on to others. As in, "I don't think there's anything wrong with having children out-of-wedlock, but I still want you to get married, because other people might think it's not right." Privately, we all know it's a fiction, and yet it still structures our social reality because we impute sincere belief to others, even if no-one believes it literally. We say "With all due respect..." even though everyone knows what's being said could be disrespectful, to ensure that the Big Other doesn't know. It's not really insincere - I may feel like you're a jerk, but I pretend to respect you because if people believed that the Big Other thought you were a jerk, they'd mistreat you, and I don't want that to happen, as in the well-known military saying "Salute the uniform, not the person." When the inconsistency is too strong - "With all due respect, you're an idiot!" - the illusion is broken, the disrespect has to be plausibly deniable for it to work. There's also a small but important difference when these signals to the Big Other are intended to cover for the speaker rather than the one spoken to. The difference is between "By saying this, I don't mean to imply that you don't deserve respect" and "By saying this, I don't mean to imply that I'm acting inappropriately if I'm not showing you respect". The latter almost implies that if you do feel disrespected by what was said, it is because you yourself believe you've done something to deserve it. So really, the right response to "I don't mean to be rude..." isn't "Then don't!", which only confirms that you have taken offense and makes you look oversensitive, it's kindly, "Oh, I would never think you're trying to be rude to me unless you were."

Incidentally, this is why it's not really hypocritical for conservative Christians to publicly denounce sexual acts that they themselves secretly engage in - it's understood that the public pronouncements are mostly for the benefit of God as the Big Other. In a way, religious fundamentalism is an attempt to make sure that God doesn't realize we don't believe in him anymore. Once I debated gay marriage with a conservative who thought marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman, and I said, "That's fine, but only if the government isn't allowed to check if you really are a man or a woman," and he laughed, but he agreed that that would also probably work. This is acceptable to social conservatives because they think the Big Other wouldn't notice it.

This inconsistency is itself the subject of many jokes, like this one: once there was an old woman who had lived her whole life in a small village on the border of Prussia and Russia. This was during a time when the border was disputed and the village had changed hands several times over the course of her life. One day her granddaughter came running in to tell her that the region had just been reclaimed by the Russians. The woman became upset and the granddaughter said "But why does it matter which country we belong to?" The woman cried, "I just hate those cold Russian winters!" What makes the joke funny is that the grandmother embodies an exaggerated version of what we recognize as normal behavior, believing too strongly in the existence of the Big Other (the one who knows where fictional borders lie), that she even thinks the weather obeys it.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:56 PM on November 27, 2010 [17 favorites]


Although it isn't a preface, I wonder if this descriptor also covers the phrase "more power to you," which is one of my least favorites. It is always uttered by someone who wants absolutely no power given to you under the circumstances.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:53 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


With all due respect, oneswellfoop, before I rtfa, I assumed it would be about butt implants or padding or something.

My bad.
posted by rainbaby at 5:59 PM on November 27, 2010


When you get a new car and your buddy blurts out "this color sucks" it's still just his opinion, but it sounds like a proclamation of universal fact. When he says "Don't take this the wrong way, but this color sucks," it seems much more like a personal opinion than a universal truth, and is easier to live with.

In both cases, your buddy is an asshole for being rude to you about the color of your car.

It's clumsy attempt at manners for people who weren't raised right is all. The problem goes way deeper than this kind of locution. Southerners have it right. Never say anything rude to anyone except on purpose.

That's what I've been sitting here thinking through the whole discussion.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:07 PM on November 27, 2010


he said to me "I don't mean to offend you, but you're very pleasantly proportioned." Man, did that piss me off. I was certain he was just trying to say "Hey, you're fat!"

Nope, not a chance. That was not some backhanded insult. That was his hopelessly awkward mating call. He saw you in the dining hall, though to himself "wow, she's hot", and took a seat next to you. Unfortunately, that was the extent of his planning and he kind of flubbed the rest of the story. It happens.
posted by ryanrs at 6:56 PM on November 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nope, not a chance. That was not some backhanded insult. That was his hopelessly awkward mating call. He saw you in the dining hall, though to himself "wow, she's hot", and took a seat next to you. Unfortunately, that was the extent of his planning and he kind of flubbed the rest of the story. It happens.

I agree. Seems pretty obvious to me he was saying "I don't want you to think I'm some kind of shallow sexist prick who's only interested in your tits, but you do indeed have a fine rack."

Still, it was a terrible choice of words. Very awkward, not to mention hifalutin'. I don't understand how you got "you're very pleasantly proportioned" = "you're fat", though. I guess you thought he was being sarcastic?
posted by rifflesby at 7:34 PM on November 27, 2010


Someone should post how often some of those phrases have been uttered on metafilter.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:38 PM on November 27, 2010


I don't understand how you got "you're very pleasantly proportioned" = "you're fat"

Cosmo: 10 Pleasantly Proportioned Swimsuits Help Maneuver You Into Summer!
posted by ryanrs at 8:10 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had a supervisor who would temper her complaints with "Just take this in the spirit in which it is given"....whaaaa??? what the hell
posted by naplesyellow at 8:26 PM on November 27, 2010


Someone should post how often some of those phrases have been uttered on metafilter.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:38 PM on November 27


site:www.metafilter.com "I'm not a racist, but": About 83 results
site:www.metafilter.com "To be honest with you": About 76 results
site:www.metafilter.com "I hate to tell you this, but" About 47 results
site:www.metafilter.com "No offense": About 1,250 results
site:www.metafilter.com "with all due respect": About 1,550 results
posted by joannemerriam at 8:33 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


site:ask.metafilter.com "I'm not a racist, but": 3 (all of which are critical of the phrase, set in quotes)
site:ask.metafilter.com "To be honest with you": 213
site:ask.metafilter.com "I hate to tell you this, but": 24
site:ask.metafilter.com "No offense": 973
site:ask.metafilter.com "with all due respect": 311
posted by Sys Rq at 8:45 PM on November 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Interesting that in raw numbers, AskMe is almost three times as "honest" as the Blue. Maybe someone with a recent infodump can translate the stats into percentages of total comments per subsite?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:56 PM on November 27, 2010


He (or she) who is always literally* truthful and never pads phrases or employs euphemism to minimize social friction, cast the first stone.

*and I mean that literally, not in the sense of using "literally" for emphasis. That makes me want to punch people.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:57 PM on November 27, 2010


It's a clumsy attempt at manners for people who weren't raised right at all.... Southerners have it right. Never say anything rude to anyone except on purpose.

You speak so of the people who invented the phrase "bless her heart"? I am skeptical.

I think these phrases do have a use - they're meant to distinguish pure or ignorant malice from friendly criticism and bluntness. The author is correct that they are just as often used to buffer pure malice as to mark it off. But there are many occasions in life when you need to make an unpleasant remark, because something is risky or harmful or displeasing to you. And so there will always be a need to make clear that you're not making the remark out of a desire to offend you audience.
posted by Diablevert at 9:19 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Damn, hit post without meaning to. Anyway, I like "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" which is kind of the me meta but-head.
posted by Diablevert at 9:21 PM on November 27, 2010


Ooooh the one I hate, hate, hate is, "Yes, but don't you think that" (This of course is said in a condescending tone.)

No. No I do not think that, otherwise I would have said so, but thank you for saying what I said is not right and should be replaced with what you think. Yes, thank you for correcting me
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 9:56 PM on November 27, 2010


That little essay was wonderful, AlsoMike.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:46 PM on November 27, 2010


That makes me want to punch people.

Literally, or figuratively?
posted by flaterik at 10:59 PM on November 27, 2010


I think these preambles serve a function; the speaker gives himself leave to say something that they feel would otherwise be precluded by social etiquette. Very handy in a work situation where sometimes things need to be said.
posted by joost de vries at 11:08 PM on November 27, 2010


However, if someone writes "It may come as a complete surprise to you, but", they're most likely citing Daffy Duck.
posted by Namlit at 2:35 AM on November 28, 2010


Very handy in a work situation where sometimes things need to be said

Why do I suddenly get a vision of a car instructor...

"I hate to be such a spoilsport but you really need to BREAK!"
posted by Namlit at 2:37 AM on November 28, 2010


I think you'll find...
posted by subbes at 6:31 AM on November 28, 2010


I think these preambles serve a function; the speaker gives himself leave to say something that they feel would otherwise be precluded by social etiquette. Very handy in a work situation where sometimes things need to be said.

A few people are saying things like this. Sounds reasonable except it doesn't work! (Unless I misunderstand what it would mean for it to work.)

"No offense, but your plan is completely unworkable."

It sounds like what you want me to think is, "That sounds a little bit like an insult, but it isn't, because he said 'no offense.' So I have no right to feel offended." But I don't. I think, "That fucker just insulted me and tried to cover it by saying 'no offense.'"

If I was some oddball -- the only person in the world who interprets things that way -- then fuck me: carry on. But clearly I'm not alone (with reference to the article and many of the responses here).

Is the goal just to trap me in a socially-binding net? Am I supposed to think, "He just insulted me, and I'd love to call him on it, but I can't. He said 'no offense,' the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card. Dash it! Foiled again!"?
posted by grumblebee at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2010


AlsoMike's post about the Big Other is a fun idea, but it's totally alien to me. If I fart in an elevator and there's just one other person there, I'm embarrassed because that other PERSON heard it (and/or smelled it), not because of some imaginary other. Yes, I am aware that he's pretending not to have heard it. Which makes me all the more aware that the two of us -- and the two of us alone -- are trapped in our little bubble of shame and discomfort.

The only time I would give a thought to third parties is if I know him -- say if we work in the same office. I might worried that he'd tell our co-workers what happened.

I can't connect to the Big Other even as a metaphor for the way I feel in those situations.
posted by grumblebee at 7:22 AM on November 28, 2010


"I hate to be such a spoilsport but you really need to BREAK!"

Not to be a spelling Nazi, but the word you're looking for is 'brake." If the student-driver broke while at the wheel, the result would probably be worse than whatever he did to provoke the instructor's comment.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:05 AM on November 28, 2010


I usually think of these as the "stealth broach," as in "Way to stealth broach my money troubles, jerk."

The academic terms for this are apophasis and paralipsis. "Stealth broach" is certainly easier to remember and less highfalutin, although it sounds to me like something from a sci fi/fantasy story.

I learn something new every time I browse through any of the various catalogs of rhetorical devices.
posted by kgander at 8:49 AM on November 28, 2010


break brake. Thanks, twas before coffee. Non-native-speaker devil showing its ugly horns.
posted by Namlit at 11:46 AM on November 28, 2010


If you use these phrases to precede something truly offensive (as "I'm not racist but" usually does) they are in fact useless. But mostly these phrases precede something slightly controversial or simply contradictory. Some people (as clearly demonstrated by this thread) have thin skin and can get offended by anything, and so before you make a resonable objection or give an honest piece of constructive criticism, you must preface it with some cliches to soften the blow to their fragile egos. No offense.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:12 AM on November 29, 2010


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