The Cocktail Party Contrarian: Talking Like TED, All the Time
Surely you have heard this before, people in their 20s talking about their ‘radical optimism’ for a ‘sustainable future’; the search for a partner who shares a commitment to ‘conscious compassion.’
Ever sit next to a 25-year-old at a dinner table? Young people, full of hope for the future and with loads of collagen still in their cheeks, remind us of how we used to be, and we ancients are magnetically drawn to their youthful energy. So, it always starts off well, full of potential. Quickly, though, the truth emerges. People in their 20s are much, much less interesting than they think they are.
Decades ago, we were equally uninteresting, but the current generation has picked up an irritating habit we didn’t have that makes them so much more insufferable. People in their 20s speak like TED-talk presenters hooked up to mics on a stage in Vancouver — all the time. Surely you have heard this before, their “radical optimism” for a “sustainable future”; the search for a partner who shares a commitment to “conscious compassion.” They talk about figuring out how to “engineer the ecosystem they occupy to build intentional community” and their ambitions to be “great humans.”
Good grief. Those of us who remember regular English at first feel dazzled/confused by the big talk. Then we sense we are being snowed. Kids have taken a perfectly good language and twisted it into a mindless soup of silly words jammed together with the intention of signaling deeper thought and greater inspiration than they could possibly have at their early stage of life. This faux-fabulous affectation is equally applied to everything from their workouts to their social justice sensibilities to their jobs.
One of the gifts of getting older — a low tolerance for nonsense — doesn’t serve us well here. It gets harder every year to listen to 20-somethings jabber on this way without stabbing ourselves with our forks. The worst part is that they so think they mean what they’re saying.
Someone needs to tell them that morning affirmations should stay in the bathroom mirror, not get integrated into polite conversation. Someone should remind them that sounding wise and being wise aren’t necessarily the same thing. It may seem brutal to interrupt a starry-eyed kid when he is explaining how he and his cohort at the tech startup are “reimagining philanthropy to dismantle inequities,” but really doing so is a public service. Eventually some boss who isn’t a “great human” is going to ask him to actually explain what he is talking about — without using words he read on the wall at Soul Cycle.
It isn’t necessarily fair to accuse only 20-somethings of going off the rails in this way. Too many older adults are equally guilty of verbal blather wrapped in inflated virtue-language. The degree to which they try to sound thoughtful is in direct proportion to the degree to which they seem to have no clear thoughts at all. Take a Hollywood actor at the Oscars with an award in one hand and a microphone in the other waxing poetic about societal ills. This might be a bad example: So many celebrities are emotionally 22 years old even if they are chronologically in their 70s. Politicians are wizards of similarly silly wordcraft, but they are yet another example of arrested development. And no need to comment on college professors stuck in their radical 1960s heyday who come up with course titles like, “Latinx Sexual Dissidence and Guerilla Translation.” Maybe it isn’t a scourge of youth after all.
People in their 20s won’t know who William Safire was, but the late author, journalist, presidential speechwriter, and “On Language” columnist for the New York Times knew how to express a thought. He left behind a list of “don’ts” for writers and speakers alike, one of which I offer here as assistance for the 25-year-old who might want to extricate herself from the cultural web of chaotic chatter she finds herself stuck in: “Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.”
The good news for young people is that youth is an understandable excuse for falling victim to the talk trend of the moment, and it is the perfect time to course-correct before one day getting divorced and calling it a “conscious-uncoupling.” Speak plainly, I say, and head into your 30s and 40s with clear minds, uncluttered by wasted words. The rest of us will find you much more tolerable.
Watch for The Cocktail Party Contrarian next week.