Magic words and our cultural passive aggression

Martial artists at sunset
How social interaction should NOT feel.
(Artist: bykst. License: CC0)
Recently, two religious kids came to my door trying to sell me stuff to help fund their scholarships. I politely declined, and they immediately demonstrated why I declined, turning a general principle into a concrete reality.

They ignored my “no” and kept trying to find a way to get me to buy.

And kept trying.

And kept trying.

I should note that, because of my background, I am extremely touchy about anyone at all even pretending that I do not mean what I say. But they seemed like nice enough kids (apart from the script they had clearly been trained to follow), so I restrained myself from my usual response, which is generally along the lines of “I just told you ‘no’ in civil and polite terms. However, since you are now rudely assuming that I did not mean what I said, I’m going to repeat it to you in a way that will leave absolutely no doubt in your mind that, yes, I did in fact mean it.” I merely kept denying them in (reasonably) polite terms until they finally gave up. (Or, much more likely, ran to the end of their script.)

Not two days later, I got a sales call, unsolicited. And the smarmy lady who called had an even more hostile script, which she seemed to enjoy acting out. She asked if I was the man of the house. I asked what she was calling about. She asked if I was the one to make decisions for the household. I asked what she was calling about. She asked if my name was my name. I asked what she was calling about. She sniffily said, “Well, since you’re being uncooperative, you have a nice day,” (translation: eff you, bye) and hung up.

This problem is not confined to marketing (though it is especially acute there), it has been rising in our culture as long as I’ve been alive, maybe forever. It is the idea that there are Magic Words, words that when you speak them, elicit the response you require. In the case of sales and marketing, Magic Words will get you to buy the product on offer, without thinking.

This is so offensive to me that I treat anyone who tries to control me with Magic Words as a hostile enemy who is trying to kill me. I have free will. I have a working brain. Want me to buy something? Then trying to manipulate me, to manage my impressions and steer me through your choice of words and carefully practiced script is the one guaranteed way to get me not to buy. If, on the other hand, you treat me with basic respect, tell me what you have, answer my questions directly and without trying to use impression management but just bloody answer what I bloody ask, then I might. If I want it. Which you do not get to decide or control. And if you can’t handle that, too fucking bad for you.

In politics, you get the obsession with “messaging”. Did you know that the only problem with Obamacare is that the administration didn’t use the right messaging? That’s it. Not the government takeover of one-sixth of the nation’s economy, not the partisan way it was ramrodded through Congress, not the umpteen-thousand ways it violates individual rights or the Constitution. Nope. They just had “ineffective messaging”. They didn’t find the right Magic Words.

There’s an old saying from Alfred Korzybski, inventor of General Semantics: The map is not the territory.

More and more, our culture seems to take it for granted that if you change the map, the territory will follow suit. And anyone who disagrees is an unmutual doubleplus unperson.

Well, count me as one of those. Approach me in a manner I consider hostile, and I’ll treat you appropriately.

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One thought on “Magic words and our cultural passive aggression

  1. Whenever I hear about ‘the message’ a neon sign lights up that spells propaganda.

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