So. Smart People on PBS Sound So Dumb by Saying "So."

Judy Woodruff is a great interviewer who should not  be blamed because most of her guests answer every question with the initial, "So."
Bluerasberry/Wikimedia Commons
Judy Woodruff is a great interviewer who should not be blamed because most of her guests answer every question with the initial, "So."
OK, this is a rant, plain and simple, plus it’s way outside my wheelhouse as a local reporter, which I am sworn never to depart upon pain of humiliation by editors. But I can’t stand it. I’m like that crazy guy in the movie years ago who said, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

“So.” That’s it. “So.” That’s what I’m mad as hell about, and I’m not going to take anymore. “So.”

If you’re being interviewed on PBS or NPR and you’re under 40 years of age and you want to sound smart, you answer every single question with an initial, “So.”

“So. Scientists have been measuring the content of meerkat scat for about 40 years.”

“So. Many Latvians today reject this kind of familial secrecy.”

“So. Dallas Mavericks team-owner Mark Cuban has aggressively cultivated a public persona.”

“So” what? What do you mean, “So”? Why “so”? Why can’t you just answer the question? Why do you have to start every single sentence with “so?” What do you think “so” does for you? (I’m about to tell you.)

I imagine these people in situations where somebody wants to shoot them or go to bed with them or tell them something has changemd and they’re being admitted to Harvard after all, and the first thing they can think to say is, “So.” You’re kidding me. “So?” That’s the best you’ve got?

"So. I don't think we should worry." — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Why is “so” so important? What kind of statement do people think they are making when they say “so?” Who says “so?” And here is what really pushes me so over the edge about it. Now they’ve got the kids saying, “So.”

No! Not the children!

High school kids have been in the news a lot lately, and they’re really wonderful. In this time of general gloom and anxiety, it’s so uplifting to hear them speak and to realize how smart they are. But the horrible side-story is that they’re starting to use the initial “so.” And I swear they do it more on PBS than any other network.

I suspect it’s because their parents are PBS-watchers. They’ve got Judy Woodruff on the DVR in the kitchen in the evening while they fix dinner. And you know how that goes.

Woodruff: “So. To what is this new fear of clowns attributed?”

Imprisoned-appearing guest on Skype: “So. A recent Latvian study found a correlation between fear of clowns and one type of cholesterol.”

So the kid hears “so” over and over again as a marker for intelligence. A dumb, crude person just blurts out an answer, but a really cultivated, intelligent person never answers without saying “so” first. So now the kid says “so.” That’s so terrible! Let me tell you why. Do you want to know what “so” really does for a person rhetorically?

It’s a curtsy. It’s a disingenuous expression of modesty. It’s a head-ducking, smirk-faced, tutu-lifting, toe-rising little half-bow before speaking. It means, “I am so cute, it will kill you.”

In fact, you know what? If that’s how you’re going to start every response, why not go all the way up the scale with it? Before every answer, start singing “so” in a falsetto. Get up, fling out your arms and do a couple of grand jetés across the room.

“Soooo! (Leaping.) Soooo! (Another leap.) Critics claim the Commerce Department weights the algorithm in question too heavily toward lagging indicators. Sooo! (Leap, attitude derriere.)”

And here is what kills me. In fact, I was forced to watch Fox to test this thesis. I hate Fox. I love PBS. But my guess turned out to be totally true. Nobody ever says “so” on Fox.

On Fox, people just answer. They start talking. But they never say “so” first. Oh, my God. Do the smart people of America not realize what they are doing to themselves with this?

This is why the rest of America hates smart people now. Smart people think it’s because they’re so smart. They think the people who don’t like them are jealous. No! It’s because every time somebody asks them a question, they say “so”! I swear.

click to enlarge What if, instead of, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,"  FDR had said, "So. I don't think we should worry"? - LIBRARY OF  CONGRESS
What if, instead of, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," FDR had said, "So. I don't think we should worry"?
Library of Congress
Think about American history. Can we imagine Dan’l Boone cocking a hip, hooking one thumb in a belt loop, pointing with the other and saying, “So. I think the West must be that way.”

Davey Crockett at the Alamo, holding up both palms: “So. We may as well just keep shooting.”

Gen. George Patton, cigar in his mouth with the flag behind him: “So. I must ask you to do as I say.”

Or Bob Dylan, even. “So. Johnny's in the basement, mixing up the medicine. So. I'm on the pavement, thinking about the government.”

This is about an American cultural certainty, an ability to state one’s case plainly. Something in “so” makes one question the integrity of the speaker. This is not about pretentiousness. I don’t think it’s pretentiousness at all. We can handle pretentiousness in this country. Pretentiousness is what made this country great. The initial "so" is not pretentious. It's far more  malignant than that. It's precious.

Precious is the one thing we as Americans will not survive. It negates the nation. When we become precious, then we are truly lost. Just bag the whole thing and go back to wherever we came from. The French might be able to handle it, but for us, precious must be fatal.

Abraham Lincoln. Can you even imagine? “So. Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation. … So. Now we are engaged in a great civil war…”

Look, here’s a good test for it in everyday life. Thanksgiving Day dinner, and your beloved sister Swanella, whose heart has been broken before, brings a young man to dinner who is new to the family. You arrange to sit next to him so you can grill him.

"So. Now we are engaged in a great civil war." — Abraham Lincoln

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You ask him where he grew up. He starts with “so.” You ask him what he does for a living. He starts with “so.” You ask him if he thinks Oprah should run for president. “So.”

So you figure, “Swanella, once again, has hooked up with a so-ster. Damn! Now I have to lure this so-ster out back and figure out how  to scare him off.”

Well, the point is, that’s how Fox America feels about PBS America. And the terrible thing about it: I fear they may be right. “So” may be PBS America’s Achilles heel.

I confess, I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how PBS guests ever could be trained out of it, short of a loud gong tone and maybe a hook around the person’s neck. I mean, really, that may not be such a bad idea. Two or three nationally televised humiliations might even do the trick. Just thinking out loud here.

I really don’t want to see this as a deeper issue. I’d rather just take it as a tic. The tic must have developed some kind of infectious power. Now it’s a group tic. That’s as far as I want to go with it because otherwise, I have to start watching Fox. So. Then it’s really over.