It’s no secret that the state of public discourse is at a local nadir. What goes less noticed is our similarly degraded capacity for reasoned apolitical discourse. The self-empowerment (self-importance?) of recent generations is a favorite scapegoat. So too is the recent fashion of placing appeals to emotion on equal footing with appeals of a factual basis.
This failure to engage in productive bidirectional conversation hurts us everywhere. A simultaneous comfort with dissent and allergy to talking about it. Most importantly, it imperils our ability to reach collective truths vis a vis the time-tested technique of disagreement. And it’s all because of the word “Actually.” Read on if you want to find out why I won’t be saying it anymore, and neither should you.
A quick note before we dive in: Many of you have asked where you can see Urbach Letter back-issues. They’re available here along with other writing I don’t deem important enough for your inbox.
“Actually” used to be a perfectly fine word. It was used in much the same way as “but” or “however” to turn a phrase around towards what one now believes.
“I used to think Winnie was a bear. As it turns out, he’s actually a cartoon character.”
The problem with “Actually” is that it implies a unilateral ownership of factual knowledge when such supremacy is rarely clear-cut. It shuts down a debate by implying that a truth already exists, and is known by one side only.
“Vaccines have actually been shown to cause autism, Maureen.”
See the problem?
In a world where the truth is increasingly elusive, it’s much more interesting to compare sources of knowledge than it is to proclaim one the font of truth and another “fake news.” If you think this folly is the sole province of political debate, I invite you to attend any startup pitch night.
“We don’t actually have any direct competition in the office cannabis delivery space”
“Actually, most consumers don’t understand why they’re buying Gillette Razors”
“Investors haven’t actually been concerned about our lack of industry experience, given our passion and engineering chops.”
Do you see how all of these sentences shut down debate and promote dangerous attitudes? Now here’s the upsetting part. You’re going to start listening for “Actually” in your own language, and you’re going to hear it. I certainly did. Ask yourself — did I add anything to the conversation or was I just trying to hit an easy overhead smash and end it?
3 Upgrades, actually
As you audit your language, you’ll search for replacements that get your point across while enabling, not hobbling, debate. Here are a few:
- I’ve heard. Open up the conversation about the source of your beliefs. These are things you’ve heard, maybe from multiple places. Why do you trust those sources? Maybe your colleague has a different opinion on the validity of the places you’re getting your facts?
- One viewpoint I find interesting is. Separate your intellectual interest from your beliefs to let people know it’s safe to challenge them. Engage in an exercise of perspective shifting where different truths have different validity depending upon how you look at them.
- The trend seems to be towards. This is a more forceful replacement for “Actually” that indicates a body of knowledge may have shifted since your sparring partner last checked in on it. Your right to use this phrase is contingent on you having a variety of compelling well-sourced information to give your opponent. Your attitude should still be open, with a childlike mind. As unlikely as it may seem to you at any given time, your partner in dissent could have information that shifts your viewpoint.
Cool Thing of the Week:
I have a love-hate relationship with sleep masks. On the plane, I prefer an aisle seat, so cede control over the window shade as per the Unified Code of Airplane Conduct. However, that doesn’t mean I want to entrust my sleep schedule to the King of Windowlandia. So I tried the sleep masks the airlines give you. Can anyone rest in these things? The satin ones crush your eyes flat, and the fleece ones make 1/3 of your face hotter than Phoenix in July.
That’s why I was so intrigued by Nidra’s design. At 11 bucks, don’t expect much out of the materials — this is all about engineering. There are deep cups, enabling eyelashes to flutter during REM sleep. The rest of the strap is minimalist. Combined with my favorite foam earplugs (you wax people are disgusting), these have enabled me to take back control of my traveling sleep schedule. Maybe they’ll work for you too.
Get /Giphy With it:
Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:
After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.
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