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THE BALANCED LIFE | Thought-terminating clichés

The most damaging habit I'd never thought about

You’re in conversation with a best friend or partner. Gradually their mood shifts, eyes lower, voice softens and they share an event that is clearly upsetting them. They’ve discovered they’re ill, a relationship is going off the rails, or their boss is asking they do something unethical, and they need to share. You listen attentively for a while, with nods or grimaces of agreement, then say, “It could be worse,” “Don’t rock the boat,” or even, “God works in mysterious ways.”

What were you trying to accomplish with your comment? To make them feel better of course, to let them know that others share their situation, and most importantly, encourage them to move their thoughts forward into more positive territory.

What did your comments actually do?

You stole control of the conversation and ended it, you showed that you didn’t really care by refusing to hear them out completely, and you diminished their agency—all things exactly the opposite of what you had intended, and you did this totally unwittingly.

The phrases quoted above are thought-terminating clichés (TTC), a definition I’d not heard until a friend shared a related piece from The Guardian earlier this week. Many of us throw out these well-worn clichés without thought to how insidious they can be, how they can be used by us or against us with sometimes devastating effects.

I believe that for most of us using TTCs in a hurtful way would be unintended, or without analysis of their impact, yet even attempts at bland positivity can become damaging non-communication when it replaces answer-seeking and squashes critical thinking.

Such repeated put downs can promote emotional management in some people which denies negative feelings such as anger and sadness.

What constitutes a thought-terminating cliché, and how do we recognize them and understand when they are being used for covert reasons? And, if your eyes have been opened like mine to the potential destructiveness of these clichés, how do we stop ourselves from using them?

In his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the phrase “thought-terminating cliché” to describe, “short, clever phrases that aren’t necessarily untruthful, but bring conversation to a grinding halt and keep people from thinking more deeply about important issues.”

“It is what it is” or “So it goes” are easy, although thoughtless, ways to end a boring conversation or stifle an opinion that one doesn’t agree with.

'It is what it is' or 'So it goes' are easy, although thoughtless, ways to end a boring conversation

In business, fresh ideas and creative solutions to problems can be shot down in seconds when a stodgy manager interjects “Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or simply, “Trust the process.”

These are all code for I’m in control and I’m really not a fan of complex or nuanced discussions, and you can’t do anything about it, so let’s move on.

It’s in the cultural sphere that thought-terminating clichés are so often used to manipulate those that prefer to accept comfortable tautologies or easy-to-understand simplicities rather than put the effort into learning or discussing additional information and details.

Dr Suzanne Newcombe, a senior lecturer in Religious Studies at Open University (UK), is quoted in a paper produced by the Australian Psychological Society: “This can create an environment of strong social control that shuts down questions and legitimate complaints, creating a culture of turning a blind eye to real harms.”

Beware any leader uttering “Here we go again,” or “Fake news,” to deflect criticism or avoid responsibility.

With any luck the next time we hear or are tempted to use a thought-ending cliché, we will take a few extra seconds to evaluate the choice. There is a place, very occasionally, for clichés that can de-escalate a situation which can’t immediately be resolved. “Let’s agree to disagree” is one that can go both ways. If we hear such a cliché, we benefit from knowing if it’s truthful or meaningful, or merely being used to oversimplify or hide an important issue. If we’re about to use a thought-ending cliché ourselves, before we utter it, let’s make sure we’re not simply dodging a conflict that needs to be addressed, or attempting to shut someone down.

Ultimately, we must decide if we prefer TTCs’ easy comfort or the harder work of discovering truth and answers.

Is the purpose of conversation merely to score points in arguments and minimize intellectual conflict, or is there an opportunity to dig deeper, show concern, and learn from one another?

The answer is clear, and my spidey senses are already primed to intercept the bombardment of thought-terminating clichés zeroing in from all directions. Here’s hoping we have the energy.

After three decades co-owning various southern Ontario small businesses with his wife, John Swart has enjoyed 15 years in retirement volunteering, bicycling the world, and feature writing. He is an award-winning Pelham columnist writing for Niagara readers.


John Swart

About the Author: John Swart

After three decades co-owning various southern Ontario small businesses with his wife, Els, John Swart has enjoyed 15 years in retirement volunteering, bicycling the world, and feature writing.
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