“It is what it is”: This Is Not Deep Thinking!
I have a lot of language pet peeves. Using “impact” for “effect” is one. Another is the verbing of unreceptive nouns: architecting, dialoguing, workshopping. Between you and I drives me crazy too (and please don’t make me explain why). But today, I am going to focus on a phrase which has become rampantly commonplace and irks me to no end: It is what it is.
Catch phrases have always existed to fill conversational holes. This is not a new phenomenon. What are ya gonna do? is one; That’s life or its more elegant cousin C’est la vie is another; whatever works and it’s all good fit here, too. People have always had handy, in-vogue ways of saying that they have nothing else to say. Bringing up the weather is also a handy stopgap in a conversational emergency.
But for some reason, it is what it is really bugs me. Maybe it’s because when most people utter this non-sequitur (for that’s essentially what it is), they actually believe they’re saying something profound, when in fact this phrase means absolutely nothing. It is not a deep thought, it is said in place of a thought, deep or otherwise. If used deliberately to prop up a flagging conversation, or to wind one up when you have other things to do, this phrase works nicely, as have all its antecedents. But if said in lieu of voicing an idea or opinion, the phrase falls far short. It is a poor replacement for expressing an actual thought, which I think should be the bare minimum requirement for polite conversation.
When used to replace actual thought, this phrase is a verbal crutch. It’s meant to mask the fact that you are unwilling to make the effort to express yourself. And when you fall into the habit of using it, you actually put yourself in danger of becoming ever more incapable of true self-expression. Like any muscles, conversational ones atrophy from lack of use. The less you try to express yourself, the less you will be able to express yourself.
This is nothing to take lightly. Replacing thoughts with catch phrases is another way we live on the surface and avoid delving into the depths of ourselves and of life. If you don’t make the effort to say what’s on your mind, you will become less in touch with what’s on your mind. You will be less in touch with your self in general. And you will be encouraging mental laziness in yourself and, just as bad, vacuous connections with other people. Is this what people want? I don’t think so.
I wish when somebody did this, it was acceptable to call a flag on the play: “I’m sorry, but that does not qualify as valid conversation. If you can’t think of anything else to say, just tell me you’re done with the conversation. Or change the topic. Or say your good-byes. Anything but saddle me with an insincere expression of emptiness that I am expected to respond to as if it were something more!” Instead, I am expected, by the standards of polite conversation, to act as though “it is what it is” requires an actual response, and then to come up with one. It’s like trying to play catch with someone who has no arms.
So if you’re going to use these catch phrases, know when you’re doing so and why. You may want to say something vacuous to your boss, for example, rather than what’s really on your mind. Or you may choose to say something vague so as to not escalate an argument. Or, as I said earlier, to wind up a conversation. The point is that if you use these phrases, do so consciously, by deliberate choice, for a specific reason. But don’t use them to avoid thinking and expressing your thoughts. Don’t use them as a verbal crutch.
And if you have fallen into the lazy habit of using catch phrases instead of truly considering what you want to say, please, please try to break yourself of it. Instead of uttering a popular but meaningless non-sequitur, give yourself a few moments to gather your thoughts, and if you don’t have any (at least any relevant ones), just say so in a respectful manner. I would much rather deal with silence or honest acknowledgement than be on the receiving end of an empty catch phrase. I think most people would, even if they haven’t given the topic as much thought as I have.