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Blog // Creativity
October 29, 2020

Clichés And Thought Terminating Clichés

Thought-terminating clichés are seemingly harmless and commonly used words and phrases that act to limit or stop conversation, discussion, or questioning.

Thought-terminating clichés are seemingly harmless and commonly used words and phrases that act to limit or stop conversation, discussion, or questioning.

“That’s just your opinion” and “It is what it is” and “I’m just saying” and of course “Whatever.” We hear these all the time. They, and other similar clichés, serve the same purpose.

They shut down conversations.

But they don’t just close down discussions. They also stop the questioning, the self-reflection, and the curious investigation that flows from good conversations.

The Nature of Thought-Terminating Clichés

Thought-terminating clichés derive their negative power in part from the nature of clichés as rhetorical devices that bypass new thinking. A cliché by nature is familiar. It suggests this thing is so similar to some other thing that no new descriptions or metaphors are required.

Think about the weather. It’s common to describe a rainy day as “miserable”. But are all rainy days like that? I can remember some very pleasant rainy days. And conversely, some sunny days that turned out to be very sad.

We might use only a few words to describe the weather, but in reality, there are thousands of shades of subtle difference, from one day to the next. Not all grey days are the same.

Clichés are to language what nostalgia is to the arts. Nostalgia can feel comforting and safe. But it can also cut you off from new experiences. They bypass having to deal with new ideas, new trends, new ways of doing things.

We Get Old Surprisingly Young

“Old people are just set in their ways.” That’s a thought-terminating cliché. The reality is, many people get set in their ways surprisingly early. Most have stopped listening to new music by their early 30s. Not started to listen to less new music, but stopped completely, entering a kind of “musical paralysis.”

Music is one of those parts of our culture that changes and evolves constantly. The sound or timbre of music reflects its age and the technology used in studios.

People start to dislike new music while still in their 20s. “Today’s music sucks” might be the reply. But isn’t that just a way to bypass the work of finding music you like among the many thousands of new songs released every year?

What Do Good Conversations Feel Like?

Conversations are open-ended exchanges of experience and ideas. The opposite of conversation isn’t silence, but a series of uninterrupted speeches, or monologues, where people just speak without exchanges or questions.

The anti-conversation obviously lacks the heat of disagreement. But it lacks the warmth of compassion and empathy as well. The closed-off encounter (I have my say, you have your say) means no one ever really says anything to anyone else.

This doesn’t mean conversations are or must be argumentative. You don’t have to fight, or even do philosophical martial arts, in order to have a meaningful exchange. In fact, the way many people resort to rhetorical tactics in arguments also kills the open and inquisitive vibe needed for conversations to happen.

Good conversations activate curiosity.

Why Clichés Kill Conversation

Clichés are singled out for criticism in all guides to writing well. They are seen as a mark of laziness; a tendency to use the most obvious and thoughtless way of expressing an idea. Stephen King, in On Writing, suggests that “…the use of clichéd similes, metaphors, and images” is often the result of “…not enough reading.”

Clichés don’t just make your writing look weak. They also weaken your connection to the reader. Clichés bypass the reader’s normal work of visualising and imagining what you are saying. When your ideas are replaced with a familiar image, the cliché, your writing becomes less memorable.

So, if clichés are the mark of bad writing, and they make your ideas less memorable, then why are they so popular?

The Role Of Thought Terminating Clichés

Conversations are not always welcome. Exploring ideas, asking questions, investigating stories, or following curiosity and imagination wherever it leads isn’t always acceptable.

Clichés have often been used as markers for the edge of acceptable debate in politics, especially in totalitarian regimes. This kind of language is satirised in both Brave New World and 1984.

But we also find thought-terminating clichés in democracies as well. Phrases like migrants, boat people, illegals, act in ways that load debates with superficial emotion in place of moral reasoning.

And they are perhaps most prevalent in folk wisdom and arguments based on so-called “common sense.”

They act to shut down conversations, or to move the conversation from a substantial footing (actual stuff in the world) that can be resolved, to an insubstantial one (ideas and emotions) which requires no resolution.

This is the insidious side of thought-terminating clichés. They turn someone’s request to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be given space, with a reply that basically says “I don’t really need to take you seriously,” but does so in an otherwise polite way.

Clichés Kill Creativity (And Democracy)

Clichés imply a sense of agreement. They suggest an obvious way to interpret reality. But at the core of creativity is a desire for divergent interpretations. OK, so it’s like this now, but why can’t it be better, different, or more fun some other way?

In a similar way, democracy needs creativity because many of the problems we try to face need new and novel solutions. We can’t get where we need to be by doing what we’ve always done. Fixing big problems requires creative thinking. Climate change, racial and social injustice, and controlling the pandemic and then rebuilding after it, are all very big problems indeed.

The Future For Clichés

Clichés, like nostalgia, can sometimes be fun. Perhaps they’re less like poison and more like sugar. A little is enough.

When expressing yourself, it’s worth pausing before using clichés. Is the idea I want to convey something simple? Then maybe a cliché is OK. After all, some days really are “hot as hell” and nothing more needs to be said about them.

Are you happy to be that predictable, though? Is your world that easy to explain? Or do you want the people around you to imagine with you all the possibilities for experiencing your world more deeply?

We must be more vigilant about clichés, especially thought-terminating clichés, the kind that close down conversations, that stop inquiry, and that make it so easy to avoid asking the questions we need to ask about how to make our world better.

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