Seven Phrases For The Ages: Reading The Meaning Behind The Words

Typically when one wants to detect bullshit and manipulation from another person he or she must frequently depend on the nonverbal aspects of communication.  You know, if someone is lying their eyes roll to a particular side of the head, perhaps they cannot look you in the eye or that slight smirk reveals a questionable motive.

There exists a plethora of studies, articles and books centered on the subject of successfully reading nonverbal behaviors.  I teach entire courses centered on nonverbal communication and find it a very important and relevant study.  As the years go by, my understanding of the importance of nonverbal communication is growing to the point where actual words come in a far second in comprehending messages compared to how actual words are said –context, tone, facial expression, etc…i.e. nonverbal.

However, this being said (see #5 below…just know this blog is the exception) certain words and phrases, independent of how they are uttered and the nonverbal presentation, are indicators of other hidden rhetorical strategies at work. I call these “conversational manipulators” -yet they come in print as well. One might say these phrases are “tells” for manipulating the conversation in such a way as to achieve underlying communicative goals. It is not only important to understand these phrases for the purpose of becoming a more discerning listener, it is also important to catch ourselves using these phrases in order to become a more effective speaker.

So how does this play out? Consider our first conversation manipulator:

1. “I was just standing there minding my own business when…“

This is my favorite, hence number one. This phrase is a prelude to a story in which another individual seemingly oversteps his or her interpersonal space or something unusual happens that makes it appear the speaker is nothing but a harmless fly on the wall.  It places the speaker in a position of complete innocence while suggesting the “innocent fly” played absolutely no role in what they are about to explain. This phrase can also be a set-up to a story that plays out more effectively if the speaker is far removed and in a state of complete normalcy…making whatever happens next far more exciting and interesting when contrasted with this innocent state of affairs. In any case it manipulates the language and you can expect some rich bullshit to follow. An alternative? “I had an interesting thing happen to me today I would like share with you.”

Certainly we all strategize to use language not only to achieve our rhetorical goals, though also to make it sound more interesting. However, some words and phrases are stronger tells for dishonest speech such as:

2. “I honestly….”

When one begins a sentence with the H word what they are really saying is one of two things –either they have not been forthcoming and honest in previous dialogue or what is about to come is not honest at all. Why might we interpret it in this way? We already assume honesty from those whom which we speak while saying this is unnecessarily redundant.  Does this mean they were dishonest up to this point?

When I have found myself saying the “I honestly” to people, what I really mean is I am about to disclose something that up to that point my inner conversational discretion meter stopped me from saying. Thus, in this case, if the speaker is about to disclose something candid while warning the listener a type of confession is about to be put forth, say, “To be candid” or “To be frank” or better yet, “I must confess” as these are all better choices and far more accurate for all communicative parties involved.

The third conversational “tell” is one we are all guilty of saying, probably multiple times a day:

3. “I never” or “I always.”

The only “never” or “always” that is true is that no one never ever “nevers” or “always” anything. Feel free to throw “every” in here as well. Upon hearing this, realize the person is speaking in sweeping terms and what is about to be put forth will be “preachy” in nature – or at the very least making one look good. For example, I can brag of my sanitizing habits and claim, “I always wash my hands after using the bathroom.” This statement would be mostly true, though ALWAYS? I am certain there have been those rare times in our lives when the line may have been too long, the sink was broken or you realized you did not touch anything in the bathroom, thus off you went -sans hand washing. Most of us could probably say, “I have never killed another human being” and you would probably be right. Though how many times do we really need to convince another of that? The “never” or “always” line is usually reserved for issues where we are trying to make a point through exaggeration or look good. These can be easily remedied with the precursor clarifiers of “usually” or “typically.”

The next conversation manipulator comes by way of Rene’ who reminded me of this beauty the other day:

4. “Not to toot my own horn, but…”

This one is quite self-evident: Some major tooting lies ahead.  I find the “tooting of the horn” an interesting euphemism to the alternatives “brag” or “boast” yet they have identical meanings.  As you ponder this manipulator, it is not only guilty of said euphemism, it is also a bold faced lie as one entirely intends to brag about her or him self…and that is ok. I strongly believe that establishing our credibility on an issue can be extremely important –just no need to lie about it. Just state it. No need to qualify it at all…we know the qualifier is just bullshit anyway.

5. “That being said…” or “In spite of the fact…”

Yes, these can be conversational manipulators…yet not always. Think of these phrases as red flags to warn our bullshit meter something big, steamy, and manipulative may potentially lie ahead. I purposefully used this in the first line of the second paragraph of this blog for a reason: It can have a legitimate rhetorical purpose when used effectively. In many cases these phrases can easily be interpreted, “disregard all that was just said” -not always. In the case of this blog it was effectively used (I suppose you can be the judge of that) to draw a point of comparison and contrast between verbal and nonverbal uses of language.  I wanted to point to the strong importance of nonverbal communication yet not completely dismiss the power of words themselves or this blog would be completely pointless.

6. “At the end of the day…”

Talk about disregarding all that was just said…this takes the first place conversational manipulator trophy. It is the first-cousin-once-removed from Auntie “That being said” -without the possibility of it having legitimate function. It suggests that whatever was just said or done is irrelevant cause “at the end of the day” some overriding power or entity will do whatever they want to do or the nature of the subject matter rests in a set of principles overshadowed by the dreaded “end of the day“ beast. I think of this phrase in the same way we dismiss our, let’s say, Uncle Joe’s racist attitudes with the platitudes, “Well, that’s just Uncle Joe being Uncle Joe” or perhaps even better yet, “He’s just set in his ways.” In all cases they are avoiding the issues and rationalizing the result or behavior with a euphemistic conversational manipulator.

And, finally:

7. “Seriously…”

Now, if one is in the throes of a humor filled conversation and want to give a turn toward the serious, this can be legitimate. Yet even in this case it is often used to simply fuel more humor because the context is supposed to get more serious and clearly does not.  Please note there is no “I” in front of seriously as this gives the word an entirely different—and effective—rhetorical use; as in “I seriously doubt people will stop using these conversational manipulators any time soon.” By adding seriously in this context it adds to the level of importance and belief in the statement made. When one begins a statement with “Seriously” this may suggest that up to that point the conversation was silly and flippant. Like “honesty” I assume “seriously” with those of whom I converse.

In spite of all this and I don’t mean to toot my own horn, though I honestly and seriously have gone well over my intended 1000 word maximum. I never do that, yet, at the end of the day, I guess we all just do whatever we want.

So, as I sit here and now mind my own business, perhaps you can think of a few I completely left out

I know, right?