Why we speak and write in clichés and common phrases

May 05, 2010 | Verbal communication, Writing

How many people in your workplace use distinctive words when speaking or writing? Here’s a wild guess: damn few if any.

That’s because we all speak in common phrases and clichés – not to mention that dreadful industry parlance. When it comes to communication, people resemble parrots. We walk around repeating the same tired words and phrases.

But why?

Three reasons.

  1. Clichés and common phrases are easily understood and – the best ones – deliver a lot meaning in very few words.
  2. We are rewarded with a sense of kinship when sharing the same vernacular.
  3. We don’t expend the effort required to achieve originality.

The problem is that walking and talking and writing like a human parrot turns you into an indistinguishable voice in an immense choir. That’s the last thing you want when trying to establish your identity in a competitive workplace. It’s the person with the distinctive voice whose ideas will stand out and be heard, not the person whose speaking and writing is so much more white noise.

Most clichés and common phrases are terrific statements invented long ago, adopted by the masses, and endlessly repeated. For example, to say I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place is widely understood and would take many more words to express if we tried to avoid the cliché. Ditto for a Catch-22 situation. Try explaining what a Catch-22 situation is and compare the word count.

Given that, it’s easy to rationale that it makes sense to use widely understood phrases that economize on words.

Industry parlance or jargon works much the same. Join a new industry and you will not truly feel part of the team until you’ve learned that industry’s lexicon and use it as fluidly and understandably as your colleagues. To do anything else would put you out of step with the crowd, and most people don’t have the sense of self to step away from the crowd. Being an individual, being an original, takes backbone.

One of my all-time favorite quotes sums it up: “Man’s unique agony as a species consists of his perpetual conflict between the desire to stand out and the need to blend in.”

Standing out also takes effort. You need to actually think about what you’re about to say or write. Foolishly, most people don’t see that as a good investment of time and energy.

Originality also requires imagination, and we haven’t all been imbued with that talent. Still, there are ways. We don’t have to speak and write with the sledgehammer impact of a Christopher Hitchens
or Martin Amis. Rather, if we can stud our speech and writing with simple, intermittent, standout phrases, the impact is likely to be more pronounced than we might imagine.

So let’s give it a try.

Next week I’ll discuss how we can bring a more distinctive voice to our written and spoken words.