Speak Softly, Love

Toward calmer, clearer communication

Many have noted millennials’ unique affinity for hyperbole. We are never laughing, we are “literally dying”; we don’t have off days, we “want to kill ourselves”; we don't have close friends, we are "best friends forever." We willingly accept each others’ exaggerations and smilingly recognize their lighthearted nature. However, our tendency to overdramatize sometimes goes beyond frivolous metaphor into an inclination to use stronger, harsher language to convey our feelings towards any phenomenon, and this may have adverse consequences that bear recognition.

An example: The word “creepy” is often thrown around by young women describing the various shades of men that they encounter. An unfamiliar man asks you on a date? He’s “creepy.” A boy makes flirtatious advances towards you at a party? “Creepy.” A male classmate texts you back one too many times? Still “creepy.” Yes, of course, some men engage in creepy behavior, and I have no doubt that a number of these incidents actually warrant the label; however, the overuse of the word has meant that it has lost its significance.

Bad actors deserve a healthy dose of cynicism, but our words must effectively distinguish the behavior of men who attempt in good faith to initiate friendship, or even romantic relationships, from those who have viler intentions. We do not want to create an atmosphere where (as I am afraid is already to some extent the case) some of my male friends are afraid of speaking to women. It would be a shame if, after all our efforts to achieve gender equality in the workplace, our otherwise well-meaning male colleagues are nervous about exchanging even a casual greeting.

As for young men describing their female peers? Any small deviation from what might be considered normal behavior is immediately branded “psycho” or “bitchy.” The vileness of this language is simply absurd. When the default words used to express minor discontent with a woman are already so foul, I shudder to imagine how millennial men describe the ladies they truly despise.

Negative descriptors are not our only problem. We jump over basic contentment, and move straight to adulation, using “love” to describe any person that we, well, like. We do not make casual acquaintances, instead we curate an ensemble of “best” friends. Once again, the meaning of our words is eroded by their repetition. It has become difficult to distinguish someone’s bosom companion from that kid they hung out with that one time in middle school.


To be sure, we have not ceased to use more gentle language; however, we typically tend to do so in displays of irony. When our friends act in a clumsy manner, we say "nice"; when we wish to denote disinterest via text message, we say "cool." It appears that we have stopped using such simple words genuinely, unless accompanied by aggrandizing adjectives ("OMG, it was literally so cool!"). It has become difficult to discern sarcasm from subtlety; hyperbole is often not used only when disinterest supervenes.

Our predilection for excess stems, perhaps, from our lack of discipline surrounding speech. Our constant use of online fora and digital media allows — even requires, if we want attention — us to be forceful, harsh, one-sided, and emphatic without ramification. It was once the case that the freedom to talk was modulated by the privilege of having people that would listen — abusing the former would cause one to lose the latter. Now, however, this is no longer the case: We may rant ad nauseam, but still manage to retain our friends. In fact, we may rant without our friends ever knowing that we uttered a single word.

The lack of restraint has debased our discourse. Words are powerful weapons, as we often recognize in demanding that others address us with dignity and respect, and ought to be used with care. The next time I find myself reaching instinctively for a superlative, I hope I am able to resist.

Aditi T. Sundaram ‘19 is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.