Stop saying, “what?”

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What the hell is going on? Why do people say, “what?” all the time now. I used to think it was cute. But not any more. It's what's driving me crazy.

 

I just spent a week with my mom, who I love very much. But she has a horrible habit of saying “what?” every time I say something. She has an excuse. She's 83. But half the time she just says it out of habit. If I wait for what I said to sink in before I repeat it, she often responds as though she heard me, even though she already said, “what?”

 

I just spent a week in close proximity with a pal of mine and I'll be damned if he doesn't do the exact same thing as my mom. My sentence isn't even halfway out of my mouth and he's already drooling, “whaaaat?” like he's in a trance. He has NO EXCUSE. He's in his '40s and can hear just fine. It may be passive aggressive behavior or maybe he doesn't realize it. On day seven I finally looked him firmly in the eye and asked him, “Can you not hear me?”

 

Asking “what?” is either meant to annoy or a sure sign that someone is not listening to your words.

 

I used to use “what?” a lot to exclaim incredulity. For instance when a friend gets a particularly good hand at cribbage, I might exclaim, “”what?!” Or when I see a dazzling sunset out of the corner of my eye or a particularly round and magnificent afro I might say it under my breath.

 

Now everyone is doing it for this purpose so naturally I'm trying to avoid it. “What?,” has become the new “right?” which was very popular right up until, “what?” took over. If you listen closely you will still hear plenty of “right?s” but I hardly notice them any more.

 

People have been using “right?” for years now to let you know that they agree with you and to pretend that they are actually listening when they are really not. It happens when someone is half listening while checking a text or checking to see if anyone liked their latest Facebook post. OMG we are so lame.

 

But “what?” is hot right now. You will see it on TV game shows and competitive cooking shows.

 

Of course teenagers own it now but even the youngest kids have learned it and now four-year-olds are repeating it back to their parents, delightfully driving them crazy.

 

“Buttercup, eat your organic, kale cumin potato salad or you won't be able to have a non-dairy, gluten-free, sugar-free, homemade bran muffin.”

 

“What?”

 

Back when I was a kid my dad would read the paper at the breakfast table before going to work. My mom would often interrupt his reading with some comment about a neighbor or a bit of gossip.

 

His consistent response was a distracted, “Is that right?,” which I still use to this day. Mom never seemed to notice but I did and remain sensitive to such communication styles.

 

Just before writing this I was talking to a long lost friend on the cell phone. We hadn't talked in a while. He sounds very distracted every time we talk on the phone and the smart smart phone just invites a distracted participant to say, “what?” all the fucking time. I was already very sensitive to this nonsense so in this instance I blamed it on the reception and said we would have to catch up in person. I find that I'm wasting my life repeating myself all the time and I'm a professional communicator.

 

With “what?” we have certainly reached a new low. And you thought that “WTF” was bad. It is but “what?” is worse.

 

Now that I think of it, the original television series, “24” made “what?” the centerpiece of their program. The leading protagonist, Jack Bauer, played by actor Kiefer Sutherland used “what?” artfully. He'd be in a quiet hallway with the bad guys storming up right behind, whispering instructions into his smart phone back to headquarters ...

 

“I need the schematics for the LAPD station downtown. I have thirty seconds to defuse the bomb before LA is nuked.”

 

You already guessed it. The alert agent on the other end of the phone whose only job is to listen and to respond to this emergency only has one thing to say ... “What?”

 

This was a maddening thing to watch but it sure built suspense and tension and the show was a big hit.

 

Steve Skinner wants a dollar for every non-essential “what?” that he has had to endure. He thinks listening is a lost art. Reach him at nigel@sopris.net.

 

 

 

 

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