Basically, don’t underestimate your listener

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Basically, don’t underestimate your listener
Let’s trust each other with depth and detail, not try to reduce conversation to basics
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Pupils at Harris academy in south London are banned from beginning sentences with ‘basically’. Photograph: @artsemergency
When it comes to the word “basically” – banned by an academy in south London – I don’t have old ears. I’m not just grumpy about its usage among the young. And I’m certainly not missing any interpersonal nuance or failing to think hard enough about the semantic and social function of the word.

But Steven Poole’s defence of “basically” made me feel even more strongly against the word. My objection isn’t that it is filler and doesn’t mean anything, which Steven says is the main angle of the usage police.

He hears it as a conversational courtesy. I hear it as a discourtesy, a simplification for the listener’s benefit. “Basically” absolutely does have meaning. It has power. And it’s a power I don’t like because it does one of the worst things you can do to people: it underestimates them.

“Basically” is “a pre-emptive concession that what is to come is a simplification”, says Steven, and I agree. But when someone leads with this word, I don’t assume they are apologising for their own simplified thoughts; I infer that they think I won’t understand the more complex version – that they have a level of knowledge or detail they can’t quite trust I’ll take in, or don’t want to give me for some reason.

I would never say it to another person, for fear of insulting their intelligence or concealing something from them. It is an intellectually arrogant approach to conversation.

There are other words and phrases that underestimate and should be guarded against. How about when someone glosses something they’re telling you about with the phrase “something called a … “? Deeply insulting. Why do they assume I won’t already know what the thing is? Or, of course, “in a nutshell”, which I hope most people would be embarrassed to use these days. Oh, and not forgetting “at the end of the day” and “the bottom line is”, which give the signal you’ve had it with trying to explain your argument and here’s a neat little summary, easy to take in.

We should not be approaching other people assuming that they lack capacity to understand what we’re on about. I’d always far rather be offered an unedited version and then ask questions if I need things to be clarified. That’s the way we should operate in our everyday dealings.

In fact we really must do so, because there are enough levels of society trying to fob us off with a less than thorough version of how things are. Among ourselves, let’s not settle for “basically” or any of the other linguistic tricks that attempt to make things crude but not necessarily clear. Let’s trust each other with depth and detail.

Orwell wrote: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” If we start becoming more tolerant of the boiling down of thought in our conversations, aren’t we gradually going to just stop thinking properly?

We should strive for complexity of thought and ways to express that thought clearly and honestly – not for ways to reduce it down to its basics. Reduce expression and you gradually reduce thought. If you don’t want a society that thinks basically, stop saying it.


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