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So…this is how much of a sheep I am

Did you hear about the recent furore on BBC 4’s Today Programme? It seems that listeners have been up in arms because radio presenters and guests are indiscriminately using the word “so” at the start of a sentence.

This new phenomenon is now rampant…but it wasn’t long ago that it was pretty much unheard of. I vividly recall the first time I came across this particular verbal tic. It was around four years ago and one of my nephews was visiting from London. We were quizzing him about his new job and he started every answer with the word “so”. I distinctly remember listening to him with mounting bewilderment, thinking to myself: “What???? What is that??? Why the heck does he keep saying “so”???”

Fast forward to November 2017 and I was recently a guest on a health podcast. As I, along with thousands of other listeners, hit the play button, I was in for a rude awakening. The lovely interviewer asked me thoughtful questions about my background and aims as a health coach, to which I’d come back with: “So, blah blah, you know, blah blah, you know, blah, you know, blah.” Yes, reader – I discovered to my horror that not only do I respond to questions with a “so”… but I also have an additional verbal tic of “you know”. Two for the price of one!

Let me stress that I had no prior inkling that I did either of these things until faced with the cold, hard evidence for myself. When did I pick up the ‘so’ habit that I’d earlier branded as irritating? Where? It was done neither intentionally nor consciously but rather crept up on me when I wasn’t paying attention.

This brought home to me just how easily we “catch” habits, just like we catch a virus. Surreptitiously. Without us really noticing, we quietly absorb other people’s habits and make them our own. I recall, going back 25 years, working in my first job alongside my very good friend Debbie. After a few months of sitting next to her, we sounded so identical that clients had a tough time telling us apart on the phone. That’s what happens: we morph in subtle ways to mirror those around us. And we don’t even need to meet these people in real life: witness my kids’ occasional tendency to speak as if they’re on The Simpsons. Awesome!

Of course, it’s not just verbal habits that we absorb. Who would have thought even 20 years ago that it would be entirely normal to walk the streets or sit at the dinner table glued to an iPhone? Or for 13-year-old girls to pout proactively for an Instagram selfie? In fact, who would have dreamt that selfies of any sort would become a thing?

Pilar Gerasimo is a brilliant journalist, social explorer, podcaster and self-proclaimed “healthy deviant” who I admire greatly (check out her excellent Living Experiment podcasts with Dallas Hartwig). Pilar talks about health as a “revolutionary act”. She’s right. We are swimming in a sea of habits that conspire to make us anxious, stressed and unhealthy on every level. It takes a mindful, concerted effort to swim against the tide and dodge the bullets. Choosing healthier habits in an unhealthy world does, indeed, require us to be something of a deviant.

We’re catching habits all the time. Hell, you may even have caught one today. The good news is that you can decide to catch positive ones – but you’re going to have to be choosy. So (no need for alarm: this is a correct use of ‘so’), here’s something to ponder: can you think which habits you may have caught that aren’t serving you? Maybe it’s a daily, sugar-filled latte that you’d never even tried 20 years ago but which is now a morning fixture. Maybe it’s lying in bed at night with your iPhone perched on your chest. Maybe it’s sacrificing more time that you’d care to admit to the rabbit hole of social media.

Well, my friend, I’m off to try and catch myself some better habits. Oh, and if you clock me opening a sentence with an entirely redundant “so” or peppering my speech with “you know”, please do tell me. Changing habits by yourself can be a really big ask and I’m relying on some support!

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Harriet 10th December 2017 Reply

Couldn’t agree more! I find at work I say “ok, so..” all the time. It’s annoying when you notice it for yourself!

Suzy 11th December 2017 Reply

Hi Harriet, I know – I annoy myself every time I hear it coming out of my mouth!

Stephen T 13th December 2017 Reply

I heard the Radio interview. It’s so irritating! It seems to be common for people being interviewed about science to begin their reply with “So.” I used to say, “At the end of the day . . . ” to sum up quickly, but I realised and think I might be cured!

Suzy 14th December 2017 Reply

That’s great that you clocked it and managed to drop it Stephen – it’s given me hope that I can do the same!

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