Adam Zerner

Saying things because they sound good

There is a memory that has always stuck with me. In sixth grade I remember sitting on the floor at a friend's house. We were supposed to write an essay together. I distinctly remember him proposing that I should write the first version and then he'll go over it afterwards and make it sound good. Because he's better at making things sound good than I am, and I'm better at the content.

I was annoyed. Not because he slyly wanted to escape doing any of the real work. At least not primarily. I was mainly annoyed at the claim that I'm not good at making things sound good.

Basically, he wanted to go through the essay and use "bigger" and "fancier" words and phrases. Ie. he'd replace "wanted to" with "had the desire to" and "essay" with "article of collaborative verbal expression" or something. He thought those sounded better and that my simple phrasing didn't sound very good.1

I hated that. Those didn't sound better. They sounded like pretentious douchebaggery.

Still, it could be worse. At least that sort of pretentious douchebaggery I'm describing is accurate. There are other times where, in an effort to make something "sound good", people say things that are untrue. For example, the video 5 Meal Prep Bowls In Less Than 1 Hour starts off with the following statement:

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It gives you the energy to keep you going. And that's why we're making these absolutely delicious breakfast meal prep bowls.

I'm not in the author's head so I can't be too confident, but I'm probably about 70% confident that he doesn't actually believe that. Or at least that he himself isn't confident in those first two statements.2 I think the primary reason he said them is because they sounded good.

To elaborate, I'd like to distinguish between a few different things here.

  1. Saying things you know to be false.
  2. Saying things you suspect are false.
  3. Saying things you are unsure of.

The author of the video is probably in category #2, I think. It doesn't feel like category #1 to me. Category #3 wouldn't surprise me though. To be clear, each category is still a sin. It's just that some sins are worse than others.

Anyway, is this a big problem? Medium-sized? Small? Trivial? I'm not sure.

I think that people generally have decent bullshit detectors. On the one hand, when I heard the start to that video I brushed it off as something that he isn't actually confident in and is just trying to sound good. I suspect that most people do the same.

On the other hand, maybe other people don't do the same. Or maybe they do but hearing the "party line" of "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" over and over again adds up and leads to you eventually believing it.

And maybe it has a subtly bad impact on the epistemics of the author. I'm just spitballing here, but maybe if you're the type of person who makes things "sound good" when you write for an audience, maybe it pushes the private thoughts that you think to yourself in that direction as well.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

If you'd like to subscribe, you can do so via email or RSS feed.

  1. Furthermore, I think that we were actually being taught something like that in school at the time. Ie. to use words like "gigantic" or "gargantuan" instead of "large". I remember this project where we were supposed to create a menu for a hypothetical restaurant and use very colorful language. There is of course a place for colorful language and a menu is arguably a great example of one. I just wish they also taught us that it is usually more appropriate to keep the language as simple as possible, a la Paul Graham.

  2. If the stuff about intermittent fasting is true then breakfast might do more harm than good.

- 2 toasts