In terms of words, BuzzFeed called moist the worst one ever. The New Yorker would like to eliminate slacks. So we had to ask: What conversational phrases elicit the same verbal vitriol? A slew of experts— from etiquette mavens to linguists—spoke up.
“It is what it is.”
I think this is one of the rudest, meanest catch phrases that has caught on in the past 10 years. It means basically nothing. If someone talks about something that is bothering her and you reply, “It is what it is,” you’re saying that there’s nothing to be done about it. That you acknowledge what the person said and you have nothing constructive to add. It’s so brutally vacuous. Years ago, people said, “Life sucks and then you die.” That was better. At least it implied judgment. When someone is sharing her problems, you can’t have perfect answers, of course, but you should show a little feeling and genuine empathy. Indicate that you have some sort of emotional investment, that you can imagine how she feels, rather than simply intoning this phrase.
John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University and the author of The Language Hoax ($20, amazon.com); Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue ($16, amazon.com); and The Power of Babel ($14, amazon.com). He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“To your point…”
The phrase that has spread through my meetings like kudzu is “To your point.” As in, “To your point, there needs to be more attention paid to lazy language.” This is the worst kind of faux flattery, in which the speaker is saying “I hear you; I value you; I’m going to reinforce your position by restating it as my own.” But often the speaker is making a completely different point. I’ve seen this phrase used to introduce a position that bears no resemblance to anything that’s been said. “To your point” just pretends to be agreeing while actually contradicting. The alternative is honesty: “I take your point, but I would argue that you’re wrong.” That would work. But for most that’s way too bare-knuckled.
Nancy Gibbs is the editor of Time magazine. (Time, like Real Simple, is a Time Inc. publication.) She lives in Bronxville, New York.
“Don’t take this personally.”
Many years ago, a woman I barely knew came up to me and said, “Oh, my darling, what shade is that pink lipstick you’re wearing? It’s so unbecoming on your face with your red hair! But don’t take it personally.” Of course, I immediately threw the lipstick away. Because I did take it personally, as most of us do when we hear this phrase. That’s why we need to be so careful with our language. You’re the only one who knows what you think and feel, and you don’t really know how anyone else thinks and feels. So anytime you’re inclined to give advice or information, proceed with extreme care.
Peggy Newfield is the president and founder of Personal Best, in Atlanta, which trains professionals in business etiquette, and the American School of Protocol, also in Atlanta, which trains etiquette consultants.
“When are you going to…?”
I’m not talking about asking someone, “When are you going to France?” I’m referring to when people use this phrase to inquire about life choices, as in “When are you going to get married?” or “When are you going to have children?” When you begin a question with “When are you going to,” there are so many assumptions baked into it. It implies that what the other person is doing now isn’t what she should be doing. And the answer requires her to accept that assumption and respond with a timetable. In regard to life choices, this phrase tends to put people on the defensive, and for that reason, I would get rid of it.
Emily Yoffe writes the Dear Prudence advice column for Slate. She is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
My grandmother is the person I turn to in etiquette matters. She said that she would ban the phrase “No problem,” and I agree. Why? The phrase is problematic because it is considered negative. It is both impolite and annoying to say “Thank you” and to receive “No problem” in reply. How could a “Thank you” be even remotely construed as a problem? Instead, you should reply, “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure,” to convey a more positive message.
Liv Tyler is an actress and a coauthor, with her grandmother Dorothea Johnson, of the book Modern Manners ($20, amazon.com). She lives in New York City.