It is possible that I am simply being curmudgeonly and persnickety, and I’m sure you’ll tell me if that is so, but there are two popular phrases that I would like to rail against. Working with my husband on our Ask the Rabbi column regarding self-esteem vs. self-respect made me wonder if both these ubiquitous phrases are misguided results of the disastrous self-esteem movement.
The first one, “My bad,” has replaced the words “I’m sorry” or “I take responsibility” in many offices. Am I alone in thinking that those words trivialize careless mistakes and poor judgment?
When someone messes up, as we all do from time to time, doesn’t the apology at the very least demand a complete sentence? Both “I’m sorry” and “I take responsibility” are opening statements that lead to further detailing of what went wrong, how it can be fixed, and how similar mistakes will be avoided in the future. In my experience, “My bad” stands alone and is often accompanied by an uncomfortable smirk. Is it possible that the recipients of endless participation trophies are not able to acknowledge blowing it and think that simply trying is adequate and worthy of applause?
The other phrase that raises my hackles is heard everywhere children are found. Hang out at a playground or listen in the supermarket and you’re sure to hear it. I’m talking about the words, “Good job.” Did a toddler put on his shoes by himself? Good job. Did a six year old connect the bat to the ball? Good job. Did a child clear his plate or hang up her coat or do anything that used to be considered his or her chore? Good job.
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, often said that saying a blanket thank you was meaningless. “Thank you for everything is the same as thank you for nothing,” he intoned. After a meal at our house he had something to compliment about each course, the table layout and the waitress staff (his granddaughters). His words were always more meaningful than the standard, “Everything was delicious.”
“Good job” seems to suffer from a similar lack of specificity as the general thank you. Uttered for everything and anything, it reflects a lack of focus on a unique accomplishment. Would a child rather hear the words, “Good job,” or “Wow. I can see that you worked hard on this drawing. Those flowers look good enough to smell.” Which one suggests that you actually took the time to look at the picture?
But there’s another problem with those two words. They get said with nauseating frequency, often for activities that should be standard and expected. If a drawing was scribbled hastily, must it be complimented? When a child sets the table, isn’t the same, “Thank you for helping,” that you would say to your spouse more appropriate than words that suggest he did an amazing feat? Don’t the words, “Good job,” seem the equivalent of patting a dog’s head rather than celebrating a new level of ability or assuming competency in an expected one?
When children glow with pride as they reach a new milestone they deserve having the achievement noticed with specificity. “You buttoned your pajama top yourself!” recognizes a new skill and shares in the child’s own joy. “Good job,” suggests more interest in the phone in your hand than the child. And if that “good job” is repeated the next fifty times the child buttons that pajama top it has the appeal of cod liver oil.
When children appropriately shoulder responsibility as they should, by taking care of themselves and contributing to the household, to my ears the phrase, “Good job,” is demeaning rather than elevating. I certainly wouldn’t use those words on a colleague or my spouse. I expect them to be competent. I can and should express appreciation for what they do, but that is very different from sounding like an apathetic cheerleader faking excitement. Even more, children’s own excitement at what they do is tamped down rather than stoked by words meant to build self-esteem rather than allowing them to naturally build self-respect.
Am I way off base here? Am I sounding like the dowager appalled at the use of “awful” or “cool” when those words newly entered the language? Should I just go grab a cup of calming chamomile tea and silence my complaints? Or is it possible that the evolution of our language is reflecting a negative trend that some of us might choose to reject?