Thinking about… Cliches

As Watchers we have all been on the receiving end of ‘clichés’. Phrases like:

You’re so strong.

They’re so strong.

Just remain strong.

God has a plan.

Keep fighting.

It will turn out all right in the end.

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Perhaps we’ve used them ourselves, or heard others use them when talking about our Loved One:

They have their ups and downs.

He’s struggling along.

You know, still fighting.

It will work out.

God has a plan.

 Clichés are part of life

Is there anything wrong with these phrases? Maybe, and maybe not. Whenever reality must be put into words and described, clichés arise.

We can’t help it.

Some words simply fit better than others. And so we reuse them. And reuse them. And reuse them, until the words themselves don’t really hold the same meaning anymore. Instead, the phrase as a whole conveys a sense or feeling rather than a direct message. And that ‘sense’ or ‘feeling’ decreases in value each time we hear it.

At the same time, it becomes tool in the hand of the user. The user can deploy it in relief when they don’t quite know what to say themselves, because the phrase has already been deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘appropriate’ by others.

 Clichés are a dangerous habit

But sometimes a cliché is neither acceptable nor appropriate. Neither is it thoughtful. It’s simply a habit. A dangerous one.

If we are on the receiving end, these phrases hurt! Perhaps because we feel that the speaker hasn’t been listening to what we’ve been sharing, because the cliché strikes a sharp discord with what we just said. Or perhaps the phrase is simply inappropriate to our situation – if our Loved One is finding it hard to ‘struggle on’, an encouragement that ‘they’ll get there in the end’ isn’t helpful. On the contrary it feels condescending and patronizing.

 Clichés make assumptions

How can we avoid such a misuse of clichés? The answer is not to simple take the time to choose ‘appropriate’ ones.

You see, clichés make assumptions. Clichés assume that what is helpful for one person is helpful for everyone. They are a ‘one-sentence-fits-all’ approach.

For example, perhaps I feel weak and helpless in the face of my Loved One’s suffering, but I haven’t shared that with my friend. As we part, my friend embraces me and tells me to ‘keep being strong’. Now this may help me. It may encourage me somewhat (at least I apparently appear strong, even if I’m not), or it may encourage me to turn to God in order to gain the strength I need.

On the other hand it may also make me feel like a hypocrite (urgh, I’m not actually being strong at all. I’m actually feeling quite pathetic) or it may squash any desire I had to admit to my weakness (well, after that I can’t actually tell my friend that I’m about to fall apart).

Very rarely do clichés speak to the depth and breadth of human experience.

 Clichés can stunt us

They are also unhelpful to the one who uses them, whether that is ourselves or someone else. This is because clichés don’t require much thought.

We can use them to give an ‘acceptable’ answer, rather than a true one. We can avoid specifics and deep conversations and hurtful, probing questions by simply replying ‘they’re struggling on’ or ‘I’m struggling on’. This sort of conversation does a disservice to everyone involved.

As humans we use language not only to express ourselves but also to understand ourselves and our world. When we resort to clichés instead of voicing our fears we mask reality and stunt personal growth. It’s also harmful to those we address. Real, true words invite people in to share our experiences and participate in our trials – clichés slam that door in their faces.

Clichés say ‘I don’t trust you’ like nothing else.

 Clichés are not all bad!

And yet, clichés have their place. They are not wrong in themselves, they are simply a lesser choice of language. Sometimes all we can say or think of is a cliché. In these situations we have two choices.

We can voice our cliché and pray that God uses it, or we can simply admit ‘I don’t have anything to say’ and pray God uses that. Ultimately, God is the one who gives language its power and purpose, not ourselves.

Clichés are also helpful for those times when a ‘truer’ answer might be inappropriate. This could be due to the situation, our emotional ability at that point in time, the person we’re speaking to and our relationships with them, or the time frame we have to answer the question, ‘how is your Loved One? How are you?’

Not all circumstances are equal, and we cannot expect to (or be expected to) bare our soul a thousand times a day to a thousand different people.

And yet here lies the challenge. How do we harness clichés for good?

 How do we use clichés for good?

We don’t stop at the cliché. It’s as simple as that. We acknowledge to ourselves (and perhaps to the person we’re talking to) that is a cliché. That it is not a true answer, or at least, as true as it could be.

We set or offer a time in which we can answer more fully, if that is appropriate.

We examine our motives for using them (is it really not a good situation for a meaningful conversation, or are we simply scared?).

Lastly, let us remember that some days clichés are all we have. We are simply too tired, too drained to summon anything else. That’s true for us as Watchers, and it’s true for those who speak clichés to us. Let us be gracious, forgiving each other, and trusting in God not our word choices to convey what must be conveyed.

// Do you use clichés often? When do you think they are most helpful? Why do you use them?

Don’t be a silent reader, share your thoughts below.

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Author: Emily J. M.

Hi, I'm Emily. Two of my closest family members struggle with chronic illness, and I watch them. That's hard, and so I write about life as a 'Watcher', what it looks like to support them and find Hope.

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