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No. 1263:
I Don't Think So

Today, a thought about the mirror of language. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I wonder what'd happen if I could meet and talk with the me of fifty years ago. The all-important question of what we said would be terribly colored by how we said it. Our values, beliefs, and expectations are bound up in language. And language has changed.

Nowhere do those changes reveal as much as they do in our politeness phrases. "Good morning" has become "Have a nice day." Same sentiment, but without the moral force of the word "good." "Nice" is more neutral. It gives us distance.

Try this one: I ask a favor of you. You grant it. I say "Thanks, I appreciate your help." How do you conclude the transaction? The old answer, "You're welcome," has mutated into something else entirely. It's turned into "No problem."

No longer are we told that we're welcome to a gift -- of time, material, or kindness. Rather we're told that the giver has not been seriously put out of joint.

A related change in language has to do with the word "please." All the Western languages have such a word -- bitte in German, s'il vous plaît in French, prozhe in Polish. The word means, "May it please you to accept this gift or to do me a favor." The word "please" is dying out, even as "no problem" flourishes.

Maybe we're all turning into the warlike Klingons, or (worse yet) the standup comedians we see on TV. So try another phrase that's entered the fabric of our rhetoric -- the phrase, "I don't think so." Nowadays it means "I disagree with you. You're wrong." "I don't think so" has become a dismissive form of dissent.

If you and I disagree, I'm still obliged to acknowledge your presence by giving my reasons. I might say, "That contradicts my facts," or "Your idea violates the laws of thermodynamics," or "Have you considered the Marangoni effect?" When I simply say, "I don't think so," I claim to be law unto myself, and I devalue you.

So we shape a new rhetoric in which I tell you, not that my kindness to you has given me pleasure, but that it has not unduly troubled me. I simply shrug smugly and tell you that, if your ideas are at variance with mine, they're not worth contesting.

And yet, we have not turned into Klingons. We remain, for the most part, kind and considerate humans. This new rhetoric is the creation of TV -- that virtual reality where the strong are strong and the weak are weak. The other night I watched a show in which three characters said, at different times, "I don't think so." In each case, a strong person was putting a weak one in his place.

Today's media tell me to be tough. Don't give away a piece of myself by telling a friend he's welcome to my gift. Don't stoop to argue my case. That's dangerous advice, and we hear it so often. It leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that, if I could speak with the me of fifty years ago, I'd have to relearn an older and gentler rhetoric.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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