As the obsessive language freak I happen to be, I’m always sensitive to new expressions creeping into the vernacular. Most frequently, those expressions are meaningless; that is, they don’t actually express anything of substance. But they’re valuable for what they signal. And they signal four things about the people who use them. Those people:
- Likely don’t know what they’re talking about
- Don’t want you to know they don’t know what they’re talking about
- Need to fill up some time while they try to figure out what they’re talking about
- Want you to believe they’re sincere and honest in what they’re talking about.
The most recent such expression is this: I’m not gonna lie. Oh, boy.
In 1985, I took my first full-time, post-college corporate job. It was at Ætna. (Yes. That’s how it was written back then when ligatures denoted something other than gizmos for strangling people on true crime shows.) I was 32 at the time.
When I started at Ætna, there was a legendary character there who was just about to retire. His name was John Callahan. (He had me at Irish.) He was a legend because of his wit and his unerring insight. Three examples:
- He once told me the Ætna mascot should be a blindfolded porcupine.
- I asked him how Ætna could make a seemingly unbroken streak of boneheaded moves and still stay in business. He said, “Mark, ya can’t hardly f&#@ up compound interest.”
- After a project had tanked for lack of clear direction and had to be re-done, John said, “There’s never time to do it right. But there’s always time to do it over.” Amen.
But the most important, universally true, and abidingly influential thing John ever said to me was this: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” And that brings us back to I’m not gonna lie.
Whenever someone says, “I’m not gonna lie,” my Spidey Sense starts tingling like Vladimir Putin’s Megalomania Meter. And the same sequence of questions runs through my head:
- Do you mean now, later, or every time?
- Why do you need to tell me you’re not gonna lie?
- Should I be suspicious?
- Have you lied to me before?
- Will you lie to me again?
- How do you decide when you’re not gonna lie?
- When do you decide you’re not gonna lie?
- If I have to do this much thinking about it, how much do you have to do?
- Is it worth it?
I can’t decide if I’m old-fashioned or just lazy. But I’m not gonna lie: It seems easier to tell the truth.
On the other hand, what do I know? I’m just an obsessive language freak.