‘Needless to say’ … but I’ll say it, anyway

You can fill in your speech bubble with your own communication crutches.

People tell me I’m a good listener.

At least, that’s what I hear.

Been noticing many of us have pet phrases punctuating our speech, like a vocal signature. Some are assaults on the ears, such as those who pepper narratives with, “Do you know what I mean?”

I am convinced those overusing this phrase are convinced no one else could remotely rise to their level of understanding. To be fair, maybe they’re just super-hungry for feedback. Take pity on them and answer. “You must mean — you’re superior to me.”

Another one I get a lot: “Is that right?”  This countrified tic is not so much a request for proof or sources but a friendly affirmation, like its hipster cousin: “I know, right?” They both say: “I hear you.” As that soulful Seventies expression “Tell it like it is” meant “Your word is gospel.”

Or today’s shorthand: “Word.”

Communication is a two-way street, so a listener’s interjections are vital proof they’re listening. But when your responses are repetitive and knee-jerky, what else might they be saying about you?

I’ve analyzed my own speech and writing for communication crutches and their subtext.

My top tics:

“Needless to say …” I may be giving my listeners the benefit of the doubt here, assuming they already know something (a compliment to their intelligence); or admitting I’m hardly original (self-deprecation); or pussy-footing around what they desperately need to hear (diplomacy).

“At this point …” Leaves open the prerogative to change my mind; says I’m receptive to change.

“Actually” Acknowledges the listener’s skepticism .. or my need to confess. Or maybe it’s a sign I’m lying. Could that actually be?

“Seriously” Means: “The previous material was humor, and copyrighted.” Or reveals a fear that no one ever takes me seriously. Similar to actually, actually.

“One thing …” I love to count, bah-ha-ha!!!! Such a tease, though, as the second thing rarely comes, or gets derailed by the first, which is usually the best.

Other talking tics and what they might say about you*:

(*’Course, I’m no psychologist, but anyone can try this at home)

“Wouldn’t be surprised if … / It wouldn’t surprise me …” You’re jaded.

“Wow.” You’re speechless.

“That’s great …” You’re jealous.

“You’re kidding!” You’re not as incredulous as seeking elaboration or gossip.

“Let’s …” You’re either faux polite or delegating to me.

“Sorry …” If used outside the context of an actual apology — when you mean “Excuse me” or “Sorry I said sorry again, didn’t I?” — you tell the world that you regret your very existence. Smacks of low self-esteem. This used to be one of my tics, until my daughters started beating it out of me (thanks, girls).

“Yeah, yeah, right, right.” Save your breath, I’m way ahead of you. (Alternatively: You have a nagging partner at home.)


Not to make anyone self-conscious. My pseudo-definitions don’t apply to the occasional utterance. I’m talking heavy repetition. Say, if you had a parrot and it picks up on your speech because it’s drilled into its little bird brain, along with your cuss words (like that ad for The Washington Post where the fake parrot voice-over says: “Can’t take this. Not another day,” etc.)

When speech matters most, though — like during a job interview or something — paying attention to what you say could truly pay. Even when seeking the No. 1 job in America.

A ‘look’ at the presidential debates

When Barack Obama came on the scene, I fixated on his “Look …” crutch. He inserted it everywhere, in press briefings, on TV interviews — as if it bought him time to think. And he’s a pretty slow talker to begin with, I know, right?

Look, Ma. I’m on TV! (How do I look?)

“Look” is technically pedantic and means “pay attention,” but to my ears it can make a speaker sound defensive. Like a plea from someone who’s been bullied a lot — subtext is “Gimme a break” or “Whaddya mean?” Playground stuff. Or threatening, like Jimmy Cagney (hear the sneer): “Look, it’s like dis, ya see …”

Lately, during the year-long-plus campaigns, Obama’s “looks” have sounded dismissive, like a vocal shrug, an excuse.

Someone else must have noticed, too. Whoever debate-prepped the president effectively knocked out this word from his lexicon.

In the first debate Oct. 3, he used initial word “Look” only once.

1. OBAMA:  “Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom ,,,”

Compared with FOUR TIMES for challenger Mitt Romney.

1. ROMNEY: “… with regards to that tax cut, look, I’m not looking to cut massive taxes …”

2. ROMNEY: “Look, I’ve got five boys. …”

3. ROMNEY: “Look, we have to have regulation on Wall Street. …”

4. ROMNEY: “Look, the right course for America’s government, …”

Remember “Look” magazine? Remember magazines?

In debate No. 2 on Oct. 16, the “looks” were neck and neck, 2-2 (not counting all the times Romney told Obama to look at his pension):

1. OBAMA: “Look, the cost of lowering rates for everybody across the board, 20 percent.”

2. OBAMA: “Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise.”

1. ROMNEY: “Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables.”

2. ROMNEY: “…Look, there’s no question but the people recognize …”

For all of you out there looking for a drinking-game prompt for these job-seekers’ third and final presidential debate tonight, “look” might not be what you’re looking for. Not if you want to get effectively drunk.

One thing, though: Mom was right.

Thinking before we speak could make the difference between our words ringing hollow and ringing true.