All Opinions Wrong But Useful · Bibliography

@rixx@chaos.social · @rixxtr

Your Hyperbolic Language Weirds Me Out

2020-03-05

Look, there goes Ms Celebrity! She's awesome, she's the best, she's incredible. Look, there's a statement by Mr Douchebag. He's unbearable, he sucks, he's terrible, honestly.

Online discourse loves hyperbole like that. Most people don’t mean to say that Mrs Celebrity instills a sense of awe in them, or that they had previously assumed her level of performance to be unattainable by humans.

Language is context dependent and weird, and as long as we can make ourselves understood, we’re doing well. I know how to read these statements, I know the intention, and yet – they weird me out. Part of that is cultural. I’m talking about internet discourse in English, which gravitates towards American English. Depending on your starting point, either US culture tends to use over-the-top expressions, or European culture is painfully understated.¹ The joys of intercultural communication.

But it’s not only cultural, and my sense of unease has two or three valid origins. First off, this kind of language encourages you to form opinions of either ecstatic endorsement or utter disgust. But realistically, people don’t have opinions of this intensity on most topics. How exhausting that would be! Imagine getting up in the morning, using the most awe inspiring toothbrush, and drinking the absolute best glass of water there has ever been!

But it’s not always easy to get a more indifferent opinion across. When exuberance is understood to mean agreement, agreement will sound like disapproval. In this mode, it’s also harder to express true delight. You’ll have to go to great lengths to say “This is awesome, no really, I mean it, I literally had tears in my eyes” etc. etc. Otherwise you’ll just sound like you had a vaguely good experience.

Similarly, it’s also harder to distinguish between shades of meh. It’s often important to say something like “A is not good, but less bad than B”. But when the general discourse is understood to use hyperbolic language, a statement like that will look like an endorsement of A. Because unless you describe something as horrible, vile, or abominable, you’re obviously not properly opposed to it.

Another reason for my unease is how seductive this kind of language is.² It’s less work to declare something to be awesome or terrible. Making a more measured judgement is not just a matter of choosing the right words, it also requires having a more nuanced opinion first. I often notice too late that I have declared that a book is “brilliant”, or that a piece of information is “absolutely astonishing”. Then I try to take a deep breath and correct for more accurate descriptions. It’s not always obvious which word would be a better fit, which seems like something I should have known before I made the first statement.

Addendum: I have no similar sense of unease about shitposting. Taking language to extremes intentionally is an art form, and also requires that you have figured out a more nuanced opinion first.


¹ I’m only talking US culture vs European culture here because those are the ones I interact with most.

² This goes doubly for people who are not native speakers. You learn best by imitation, so you’ll suddenly find yourself imitate not only the phrases, but the attitudes encoded in them.

This post is refuted by: