Over the past year, I figured out a test for sincerity in words: does it sound original?
Let me explain.
It’s easy to repeat things I’ve read or heard many times. It requires less effort, and it’s also safer. If someone else said something, and nothing bad happened, then the risk is low if I say it too.
This is copy and pasting other people’s thoughts. It’s so easy it doesn’t require me to think through things as thoroughly. I might end up copying someone else’s thoughts, which don’t reflect my most sincere sentiments.
In fiction, compare a novel full of clichés, whether they be clichéd phrases, clichéd plots, or clichéd characters, and compare to a novel which feels original (i.e. unlike anything you’ve encountered). The original novel may be terrible, but if the writer didn’t ‘borrow’ it from other sources, it must reflect their sincere feelings.
When I binge Amazon reviews (to learn more about that, subscribe to my newsletter), I sometimes see the same things said over and over again. Sometimes, the reviewers don’t want to put in the effort, which is okay. Sometimes the reviewers feel peer pressure to ‘say the right thing’ and thus copy others. After reading tens of thousands of reviews, these reviews, which seem too similar in phrasing to other reviews, feel… false. I don’t mean that the reviewers are lying. Rather, they couldn’t be bothered to express their sincere reaction to the book (or were scared to do so).
If the review says something like, “I quit after 50 pages because I was bored” using clichéd phrasing may be sincere. I don’t expect people to put much effort into reviewing books which bored them.
What a clichéd review says, ‘This book is terrible’? It may be sincere, since someone who hates a book may not want to put in much effort either, but it may also be an exaggeration. What I trust more are the negative reviews which find original and detailed ways to describe the terribleness. (Here is an example)
Every book with a high number of reviews will have low-effort ‘enthusiastic’ reviews. However, I trust most the enthusiastic reviews which say something original, something I haven’t read in thousands of other reviews. That tells me the reviewer isn’t just repeating social hype, the reviewer feels what they say.
(That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with the review. It just means that I trust the reviewer’s sincerity).
Because I binge Amazon book reviews, that’s where I first became conscious of this pattern, then in fiction, but now… I see it everywhere people use words.
In small talk, the words aren’t the point. The point is to be with another person. Having a ‘script’ makes it easy. Sometimes, the ‘scripts’ are what I want. When I want to go deeper, I go ‘off script.’
Someone: Hi, how are you?
Me: I’m doing well, you?
Someone: Yeah, I’m fine.
Me: Nice seeing you.
Someone: Nice seeing you too.
Someone: Hi, how are you?
Me: I’m okay, though I’m dealing with an annoying health problem.
Someone: A health problem? What’s wrong?
Me: I have mild pericarditis, it’s an inflammation of the thing around the heart, but it’ll go away eventually. I just feel weird.
Someone: Oh, did you have covid?
Me: As far as I know I didn’t, but maybe I caught covid and never noticed.
Someone: It’s like that football athlete, they said covid might’ve caused his heart problem. I’ve had covid, and it makes me feel so sick, but I don’t think it caused any heart issues.
Me: That’s good, I hope covid didn’t do anything lasting.
Someone: I’m fine now.
(The above dialogue is fictional, but it’s inspired by a few conversations I’ve had)
(BTW, my pericarditis symptoms are milder than ever, most of the time my chest feels normal, I hope it’ll soon be done)
It also extends to politics. When people just repeat the same political phrases over and over again, it feels like regurgitated thought. Either people didn’t think seriously about it, or they don’t want to stand out among their peers so they say something ‘safe,’ or both. I pay more attention when someone says something political which doesn’t sound like a stale repeat. I may completely disagree with someone else’s original political thought, but I’ll figure that they thought of it themselves, which means they at least thought about the issue.
This is the point of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” I read that essay in high school, but its point didn’t penetrate fully into my skull back then.
Maybe Orwell is right that it’s best to exclude lazy recycled thoughts from politics (but is that possible?) However, in some situations (such as small chat you want to keep shallow), cliché is the way to go.
In the book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder, a domestic violence victim describes the caged snakes her abuser kept to law enforcement. They instantly recognized that she was telling the truth, since this would be such a weird detail to include in a lie. However, when the abuser was about to be let of jail on bail, the victim recanted (victims often do this to avoid the wrath of their abusers). Because she recanted, they dropped charges (I think? I don’t have the book on hand to check). The abuser then murdered her and their children. Investigators found the snakes.
What’s the takeaway for you?
First, if you want someone else’s attention, be sincere. Think of your own wording as much as possible (while still being easy to understand). This applies whether you’re writing fiction, delivering a speech, or composing a letter.
Second, this is a measure by which you may test others’ sincerity.
So test me. Does this blog post pass the sincerity test?