There are certain things a person just shouldn’t say, and yet, we all do it. No, I’m not taking about things that are rude, vulgar, or otherwise uncivilized. I’m thinking of self-negating commands or advice (usually in the form of cliches). Personally, I think it’s the fact that they’re cliches which is at fault. If they weren’t so common, everyone who hears them might tilt their head to one side, squint, and think, “Say what?”

Let’s start with the easiest: “Expect the unexpected.” First of all, if you expect it, it’s no longer unexpected. If I follow your advice, I’ve just made it impossible to follow your advice! And that’s just not a nice thing to do to a person. Further, in order to expect something, I have to know about it. But if it’s unexpected, I don’t know about it. So you’ve just told me to do something that is inherently impossible to do. I can only assume you’re laughing at me on the inside.

huhClosely related to that oxymoronic bit of advice is this: “Prepare to be surprised.” Really? If I’m prepared for it, I won’t be surprised. So once again, you’ve instructed me to do something which, if I do it, will make it impossible to do. You may as well blindfold me and spin me in circles. Alternately, if this thing I’m supposed to prepare for is inherently surprising, there’s no way I can prepare for it. So, once again, you’re asking the impossible (some people will never be satisfied).

toetagHow about something a little less obvious: “Jump in with both feet.” What else am I going to do, leave one behind? Seriously, let’s examine this. If the person you’re “encouraging” only has one foot (or worse, no feet), this would be a thoughtless thing to say at best. On the other hand, if they have both feet, maybe they can do the jumping part using only one foot (e.g. stand on one foot and jump), but jumping in implies they’ll be leaving their present location and entering another. Maybe your other friends are more accommodating, but I am not chopping off one foot to leave it behind, so the “with both feet” portion of your advice is really pointless. (I’m beginning to think you just like being contrary.)

Next time someone asks for your unbiased opinion, I recommend you tilt your head to one side, squint, and think, “Say what?”