Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

05 Mar 2009, 8:05 a.m.

A Fuss

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Ned Batchelder pointed to John Hodgman's condemnation of "meh" in one-off blog comments and tweets.

By definition, it may mean disinterest (although simple silence would be a more damning and sincere response, in that case)... But in use, it almost universally seems to signal: I am just interested enough to make one last joyless, nitpicky swipe and then disappear...

I think Hodgman is basically right here.* Another way to put it: "It's incredibly easy to make people feel embarrassed about having been enthusiastic about something, and 'I don't see what the fuss is about" is an effective tool with which to accomplish that task and shut a conversation down."

After submissions closed for Thoughtcrime Experiments (we've chosen the final stories, by the way!), Leonard defined our scoring process as: "From A to E the tiers are 'absolutely not', 'no', 'eh', 'yes', and 'yes!'" Note that the middle tier is "eh", not "meh". "Meh" is "I don't care" but "eh" is "I could go either way."

Batchelder praises Hodgman for "fighting the good fight for sincerity and engagement." Brandon Bird also recently mentioned "the new sincerity" and I'm into it -- earnest, enthusiastic passion is to me part of what makes a person worth talking to.

I expect a certain level of honesty, openness, engagement, and willingness to stand by one's statements in any conversation -- it's jarring to try to converse with people who don't share those values. I'm thinking when I vociferously challenged a claim by someone at my sister's housewarming -- he said that all TV is mindless because it dictates how you interact with it. Another conversant sort of stepped forward and said, to cool down the discussion, "I think we didn't mean for this to" meaningful? heated, to his eyes, because I showed that I cared and thought the other person was genuinely wrong about something important? I backed away. I probably should have shown more empathy and hospitality in conversing on a level that made the other guests comfortable -- direct challenges to statements of opinion do come off as angry and impolite, in some situations. But "meh" still isn't the answer to that; diplomacy is. And that I need to work on. My first year in college, a dorm-mate suggested I work on "something that starts with a t and rhymes with tact." I'm better, but evidently not great. Eh.

*(Disclaimer: JS, I still value and enjoy the flask you gave me that has "meh." laser-engraved onto the side.)


05 Mar 2009, 9:41 a.m.

earnestness is something I've found, in my inter-cultural studies and experience, to be a predominately american (ie NOT british) quality. thoughts?

Sumana Harihareswara
05 Mar 2009, 9:48 a.m.

As a rule, are Brits less earnest in public than they allow themselves to be with close friends? And how do they display that they are more or less engaged, attentive, and invested in a conversation?

If a "reserved" person speaks with an "earnest" person, whether the mismatch occurs due to personality, upbringing, culture, or what have you, then the person who's acting aloof and couldn't-care-less has the upper hand, statuswise. It's a display of dominance, if sometimes inadvertent, to show that you aren't as engaged in the interaction as the other person is. To "meh," "whatever," and "bored now," we can Catherine Tate's "I'm not bovvered."

05 Mar 2009, 10:37 a.m.

That's because "meh" has a strong overtone of "sweet booze, rescue me!"

10 Mar 2009, 14:53 p.m.

I think Brits do tend more towards irreverence and flippancy. I'm not sure that we're less earnest.

Personally, I agree about the importance of being earnest, but I think that's different from being serious (which I dislike).