So … Stop that!

So ...

You wouldn’t insult a reader like this. So why insult your listener?

So … would you start written copy with the word “so”? Of course not. Then why do many people in conversation start their responses with “so”? This bad habit has pervaded our culture, annoying the hell out of me since I first noticed it a few years ago.

It’s especially bad practice when doing an interview. Some listeners find it offensive.

Professionally, how people talk is not all that important to me, except that my voice actor half is naturally interested in how real people talk.

Is it really important?

What an ordinary individual does in private conversation is their business. Let’s leave correction to their conversational partner — whether the annoyance is “upspeak” (every a statement sounds like a question), or “y’ know” (no, if I knew, why are you telling me?), or whatever.

Nevertheless, the writer in me still hasn’t gotten past it. Since my profession is largely persuasion in print, I figure I at least have some stake in the issue when it comes to public speaking (radio, TV, podcasting, symposiums, whatever).

Many of these speakers are trying to persuade others. At least one of the current presidential candidates provides a notable example. The candidate is known for having a detailed plan for seemingly every significant issue, but must have missed the significance of this. In a recent debate, almost all of the candidate’s answers began with “So … .” (Don’t get me started on Obama’s dropping the “g” in “…ing.”)

Can you ever start a sentence with “So”?

Of course. There are various valid reasons for saying “so.”

  • As a conjunction, it’s fine. (“This happens, so that results.”)
  • It’s also okay as a social convention that suggests, “I’m picking up where we left off” … as when renewing conversation between friends. (“So, how you been?”)
  • It’s also used to return to a line of conversation that the other person tried to veer away from. Occurring with or instead of “Anyway,” this habit is not polite, but that’s a different issue. (“I’ve been trying to dress better.” “Sorry, I can’t think about things like that. My dog is very sick.” “That’s too bad. So, what do you think of my hat?”)

In other contexts, where it serves as a verbal vamp while getting our brain up to speed — the way we used to begin with “ummm” — it’s just wrong. “Ummm” at least is meaningless, more innocently suggesting a thought is occurring. (As Star Trek’s android Data might say, “Processing…”.)

Why the gratuitous “so” sounds insulting.

Unlike most other verbal vamps, “so” is a word. It does have meaning. So its use is easily misunderstood. To the uninitiated listener, it seems even insulting.

As described in this Fast Company article, it comes across as if the answer is rehearsed, not a thoughtful personal response. It sounds like the speaker means, “So here’s my stock answer to your question, rather than my actually talking with you.”

Maybe the reason for that is that it’s so amateurish, like the other bane of the novice public speaker, the “fig leaf position.”

Other news stories about the habit suggest that the Fast Company article is too harsh, that there are other interpretations, and that people have always done it.

As I’ve already agreed, yes, there are other reasons, some valid. But, no, it is not just something we finally noticed. We used to say “Ummm” or “Uh.” And, when I was much younger, if I had said any of these things at a restaurant table, my grandparents would not have allowed me dessert or a sip of my Shirley Temple cocktail until I corrected myself. (Interjecting with “Hey!” also fell into this category.)

Your listener is your judge.

In any case, as the FTC and Advertising professionals hold, meaning is not in what you say, but what the reader or listener understands. To me and other listeners, “So” still sounds insulting when starting a response to a question.

As with tinnitus, I’ve learned to live with it, and now sometimes I barely notice, especially if the speaker does it just once or twice. But that doesn’t make it a desirable condition. People who want to persuade their listeners, rather than annoy or offend them, should learn to lose it.

Instead, simply pause a beat, then start to express your thoughts. Some of us will hear them better, undistracted.

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