Author: Cornish, Rick

So, what’s up with ‘so’? Can anybody tell me? Any theories? Am I the only one who’s bothered by this? Well, not bothered. More perplexed. And curious.

So, here’s what I’m talking about: the habit of a growing number of young folks, let’s say twenty-five to thirty-five year olds, to begin a spoken paragraph with the word ‘so’, followed by a brief pause. Do you know what I’m talking about? Does this have resonance for you?

Ironically, I first noticed this odd pattern of speech in a written, not spoken, communication with a twenty-somethinger. It was about a year and a half ago and I’d been emailing back and forth about some CBA issue, the upcoming Fathers Day Festival I think. After about four emails from this fellow I began to notice that, when he responded to a question, his e-mail would start with the word ‘so’. For example, I’d ask what he and his friends thought about something and his response would begin, “So, we have, in fact, talked about this and it seems to us……”

It was right after noticing this peculiar construction in writing that I began noticing it in speech patterns with some of my younger colleagues at work. I found that, when posed a question that would require more than a simple yes or no answer, a question that would necessitate a reasoned, nuanced answer, the young folks I worked with invariably began speaking with, “So, “ I also noticed that the brighter the speaker, the more likely the ‘so’.

Then what happened was that I began seeing a new doctor and during our very first meeting she told me that, in effect, I shouldn’t expect any miracles from her if I wasn’t willing to do my part….which was to commit to doing a minimum of 60 minutes of strenuous exercise at least five days each week. After a good deal of soul searching I finally concluded that it wasn’t laziness that kept me from working out, it was the sheer boredom of the enterprise. My son recommended listening to pod casts on my I-Pod, I tried it, it worked, my doc says I’m healthier and, more to the point, I’ve proved, to myself at least, that the use of the word ‘so’ in answering questions is pandemic among younger, well-educated Americans. I’m not kidding.

See, the pod casts I listen to tend to be of the non-fiction, interview variety. Lots of NPR Science Friday stuff, politics, current affairs, history…..anything that can get my mind locked in so I can forget that I’m exercising. (The exception is time spent on weight machines; I’ve always got bluegrass going full blast then.) So, what I found is that one-half to two-thirds of the people interviewed on these pod cast shows are in their mid twenties to mid thirties and that close to one hundred percent of the interview subjects in this demographic begin a lengthy spoken narrative with “So,“. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from one of my favorite pod casts, “Stuff You Should Know”. One of the hosts is describing an article he’d recently written: “There’s an article on the Stuff You Should Know web site called, ‘Is There a City Below Beijing?’ It’s an awesome article. Let me tell you about it. So, Chairman Moa gets into a little border dispute with the Soviets……..” Whether the topic is sub-terrainian cities, gene splicing in mice or voting patterns among Spanish-speaking herbalists, if the expert is of a certain age, you’re going to hear the ‘So’ word, probably multiple times.

So, what was once just a gut feeling, a hunch, on my part is now grounded in over a year of careful, objective observation and analysis. Which leads me back to my original question—why?

I can think of only one other example of a speech pattern that seems to be exclusive to a paarticular age group, it’s one with which we’re all very familiar, whether we’ve actually thought about it or not—it’s the tendency that many kids, young ones through teens, have of making a statement sound like a question. As in, “Yesterday? When we went out for recess? We were playing kick ball? And Johnny got whacked right in the face!” The end of each sentence rises in inflection, as though it were a question. But, of course, it’s not. I’ve thought about this one too, and I think I have an idea of what’s up. Kids, like everybody else, want to be heard. But, sadly, kids, or at least many kids, have had all too many experiences being ignored. People don’t always listen to kids, particularly kids relating playground experiences. So children, from an early age, begin to unconsciously build into their speech patterns little prompts that elicit, almost subliminally, feedback from the listener. “Yesterday?” (Listener nods.) “When we went to recess?” (Listener nods again) And so on.

In the same way I’m thinking that maybe the insertion of the word ‘so’ in the beginning of some answer or explanation or narrative is inviting the listener to pay attention. Or maybe it’s the speaker implying, again in a very subliminal way, that what she/he is about to say is part of some bigger, more fully developed idea. Maybe the ‘so’ is a short hand way of the speaker announcing that, okay, it’s her/his turn to add to the conversation. Or maybe it’s none of these. All I really know for certain about this is that growing numbers of twenty and thirty year olds are using the word ‘so’ to start spoken paragraphs. And I’d really, really like to understand why? Any help out there?
Posted:  9/25/2008

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