Sort of, Kind of …

I’ll Make this Sort of, er, Kind of Clear

You’re not going to like what I’m about to share. You’re going to start hearing these words uttered by just about everyone. All the time. You’ll be incredulous and ragingly aware at the number of times other people use them – and that you use them.

I get it. When I was made aware of their use, as an experiment, I counted the number of times I, my cohost, and guest used them in one forty-minute podcast: 36.

The words are “sort of” and “kind of.”

Used as intended, they hedge one’s thinking. They are meant to position whatever follows as less precise, accurate, or certain:

“If he were truly honest with himself, he was only kind of interested in the job.”

“The dorm food was sort of healthy.”

Reporter Steven Kurutz theorized in a New York Times article back in 2014 that our seeming increased use of the words were “a linguistic manifestation of the indefiniteness we feel, a noncommittal expression for a time of rapid technological change and instability across our social structures.” That’s saying that our use of them is deliberate; we’re consciously interjecting them because sociologically speaking, we’re vibrating due to the dynamic world we live in.

Could be, I guess. But two points argue against that theory at least when used as a broad brush explanation:

  1. The sheer number of times we hear them used in a single conversation would then call into question the very soundness of an explanation or argument. Used in quantity, as they often are, we would be left to wonder why we should even try to understand a topic that is so fluid.
  2. And perhaps more telling, writers rarely sprinkle them into their narrative. These are largely phenomena of speech.

I’m no linguist, but I think our over-use of these terms is akin to our (lazy) use of common verbal fillers elsewhere.

I mean, like, you know?

OK, so if imprecision in our thinking and language is a problem, let’s flip that coin over to this week’s podcast interview and guest, Colin Seale. Colin is an educator, attorney, and self-described critical thinking evangelist. He is the author of Thinking Like a Lawyer – A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students. And there is nothing “sort of” or “kind of” about his argument or instructional framework.

When you think like a lawyer, you’re hardwired to look at problems and solutions from multiple angles, to ask questions, and to get the information that you need to make different claims, and then back up those claims with evidence. Why should we wait until law school to introduce kids to those thinking skills?

Simply put, if we want today’s students to take productive steps in our ever-evolving world, they need to be helped to think critically. Truth be told, having students think critically is not a new idea. We were sprinkling critical thinking questions into our lessons way back when I taught. And “sprinkling” is the operative word there because what is new is Colin’s systematic approach. Barriers stand in the way – how and when we teach thinking skills and to whom – but as Colin explains, they’re surmountable if we’re deliberate in how we approach things.

If you made it this far, thank you! And if you’re intrigued enough to listen to the podcast episode, thank you again. We’re kind of partial to this one.

Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. I have yet to listen to the discussion, Jeff, but I was reminded of the many other phrases that have specific functions particularly in the spoken language.

    Whenever I hear “in reality…” or “the core of the matter is…” my hackles are slightly raised because I feel steam rolled. Whose reality are we discussing here, pal?
    The opposite direction is questioning, apologizing for having an opinion, and in this category I would also group your “sort of”. Talking this way diminishes the speaker and allows others to disagree or add their opinions.

    I wonder – an invitation to disagree or add other opinions 🙂 – whether the prevalence of the written word in today’s discussions leave people with fewer oratorical capacities. Does the delay caused by the medium – that leaves the reader able to verify or contradict anything written by looking up facts as they exist in the big cloud lexicon we all carry around – lead to people being more careful about how they express themselves so we have fewer who dare proclaim “in reality”?

    • Charlotte —
      I’m a bit suspicious of ascribing the use of these hedge terms to people “being more careful.” My cynical self says their use is unconscious auditory mimicry. We “hear” others using them, so we do. Those two phrases are SO ubiquitous now that they have lost any meaningful value. At best, they are weak lead-ins for weak metaphors; at worst they are just absent-minded expressions. I had one guest recently use them three times in an extended thought!

      I had a personal break-through the other day. I actually caught myself using one! That is the first step to NOT using them.

      Thanks for your read and thoughtful response.

  2. Thanks, Jeff.
    Spot on, as usual.
    From a bassackwards perspective, we know that if children do not come out of schools with strong critical thinking schools, it’s because that’s not what schools do. If you want to clean your car but drive through a tunnel instead of a car wash . . . .
    I have a friend who’s far more cynical than I. He suggests schools were designed to produce obedient workers.
    Kindoff (the Russian version of ‘kind of’.)

    • I second that opinion, Mac.
      It is the problem with changing from an industrial to a post-industrial society that more people are supposed to think on their feet if they have direct interaction with customers or be directly creative if they work in many other functions.
      If that has not been rewarded in the past – and teachers unfortunately seem to dislike being challenged by their students – it is a long change process.

    • Charlotte — Like leaders in business (of which I was one), most teachers (of which I was one) as purveyors of content are consciously or unconsciously led to be believe that they are “supposed to have all the answers.” That is slowly changing.

      Thanks again for your read and comment.