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Internet Hyperbole is Literally Out of Control

Are you guilty?

03.17.17
Hyperbole-on-the-Internet-Man-Repeller

A friend of mine took me aside last year and asked me to stop using “kill me” as slang for “ugh.” My tail was between my legs, right where it belonged. She explained that someone she knew had taken his life, and suicide as a punchline was like salt in the wound. Her approach was respectful and empathetic; I was glad she educated me. I was also horrified and ashamed and made an immediate effort to cut it from rotation.

After a few days, I had questions. Was this phrase ever okay? When another friend used it, should I educate her to the possible pitfalls even if the expression didn’t bother me? The hyperbolic “kill me” — used as a brash reaction to something mildly annoying, like damp jeans — had always made me chuckle. It’s a privilege, I know, that for me those words aren’t tainted by personal tragedy. Same goes for asserting something should die in a fire, makes me want to gauge my eyes out, is the worst thing that’s ever happened, is literally crazy, etc.

In the case of hyperbole, the internet’s favorite form of sarcasm, we use it because exaggeration makes us laugh. “Jokes work because they defy expectations,” reports the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute. We experience humor in three phases: incongruity, surprise, recalibration. Dramatic language is incongruous and shocking. But jokes rooted in surprise are fraught with insensitivity warning signs. Where is the line? Does it move and change depending on context?

A lot of “edgy humor” is offensive full-stop — it punches down, has history, reinforces larger injustices — but what about the kind that tows a more abstract, contextual line?

For every person who calls for more sensitivity and awareness around the way we speak, there’s another who is wary of trigger warnings. In The Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” writer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (two white men, it should be pointed out) warn against the dangers of protecting words from students instead of the other way around. “It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression or worse.”

In a different Atlantic piece, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the virtues of political correctness. “It’s about practicing tolerance,” he writes. “It’s about attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process.”

Both makes sense; neither present a tidy solution. “Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds,” Lukianoff writes, “But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”

Communication is a complex, shared dance between speaker and listener. And to engage with broad audiences, as both communicators and consumers, is to subject ourselves to the trappings of inevitable ignorance. The line moves with us and around us.

Do you use these kinds of jokes? Are you offended by them? We have a lot of tangential conversations at Man Repeller, so I’m interested to hear how this particular topic makes you feel.

Photo by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • After losing a friend to suicide, I became hyperaware of how common it is to pantomime shooting oneself in the head when something bores/bothers/irritates you. Since then, I have avoided all forms of violence-related hyperbole but I’ve never asked someone else to stop doing it, even when I would have liked to. Glad your friend was able to approach you in love and that you were able to hear her.

  • stephanie

    I’m more annoyed than offended by these types of jokes. It’s so pathetic that a majority of people “can’t even” explain how they’re feeling outside of preposterous hyperbole. I guess what defines the fine line, for me, is sarcasm and irony. Using these types of jokes ironically to mock people who wholeheartedly use these phrases as a genuine means of communicating feelings is funny.

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  • SJ

    I’m sorry…as a woman of color I find it highly unnecessary to point out that “two white men” wrote a piece. Does that somehow delegitimize their opinion? I have had one too many times where my opinion was delegitimized because I am a woman and I am not white. I would NEVER do the same to someone else, even if they’ve done it to me. I found this piece compelling (even though I disagree with some points) until I read that. Disgusting.

    • vdigital

      seems like it’s actually pretty relevant context for a piece about how people may or may not be offended by certain phrasing. although ironically you were offended by even the inclusion of said context. so, i guess no one wins now, ever.

    • tequilamockingbird

      yes. the fact that they are two white men who’ve never faced any form of systemic oppression delegitimizes their opinion that trigger warnings are unnecessary. there is a causal relationship between their status as white (probably cishet) men & the problem w/ their argument.

      also, why do they think it would be a bad thing if everyone thought twice before speaking? that’s super weird.

    • Ciccollina

      It is super interesting to me that you say this because I have heard many minorities and women ask white cis men to please not comment on issues that don’t affect them, that is, women’s issue, black issues, LGBTI issues etc. It seems that they believe that since a white cis man has enjoyed privileges that are well documented, that these men might not be able to see past their own experience and bias and are therefore not entitled to join the conversation. And while I understand that sentiment, it also greatly concerns me. Are we saying that people are unable to feel empathy, or imagine the experiences of another person? It’s very sad to think about really, because it pits us against each other, as if we are not all human beings and able to feel the same pain. Obviously I can never know how it really feels to be Muslim or trans or Black, I am telling you right now, I have imagined it! I have cried for my brothers and sisters around the world, and I find it hard to believe that this empathy is unique to me, or that white, cis men are not able to feel someone else’s pain. We need to believe in each other a little more, methinks, even though it is hard sometimes.

  • Jessica

    Before I got diagnosed with ADHD I was very depressed and struggled with suicidal thoughts. And I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone and if I did they became so concerned: “don’t say that!”, that it was really just a way of shutting me up because they didn’t want to deal with it. Saying “ugh kill me” is one of the ways that I cope with that past and take away that power. Because some things are shocking and we don’t know how to deal with them. I don’t know, for me, trivializing that is my way of reclaiming power over that dark period.

    • Hellbetty666

      But that seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction (as opposed to the great example cited in the article of using “kill me” as a reaction to mildly damp jeans).

      • Jessica

        I’ll use “kill me” in regards to small things like homework or a cold etc. I’m saying that I’m making a choice to trivialize it. If it offends someone, I don’t say it around them but if it just makes them uncomfortable, I’m not going to stop saying it because they think I shouldn’t. I think that language can’t have hard and fast rules just try to accommodate where possible.

  • Courtney

    Such a thought-provoking question. I’ve never been a big fan of people saying something was so boring or whatever that it made them want to “hang themselves” or miming a self-inflicted gunshot wound, as that seems really crude. We have an entire language to describe how things make us feel, and it seems like such a lazy thing to resort to language that insinuates that suicide/suicidal thoughts are casual instead of a very serious issue. Hell, I remember a few years ago when an accepted response to someone saying something ridiculous was “kill yourself,” which is just completely over the line.

    Personally, I love a good “fuck me” when I’m being dramatic, but I also recognize that cursing may be offensive to some. The difference is that a swear word, when not targeted at anyone, is fairly benign and doesn’t make light of serious mental illnesses.

    Bottom line, you never know what someone is going through, and while I think it’s unavoidable to have some missteps along the way and possibly trigger someone, having a general compassion for others and what they might be experiencing is never a bad thing. I’m not quite sure why some people think that compassion and respect for legitimate victims somehow equals babying.

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  • Hellbetty666

    “Awesome” gets me when it’s used in reaction to something perfectly mundane. Recent example “I’ll be around if you want to drop off that memory stick” “Okay, yeah, awesome”.

    There is *literally* nothing awe inspiring about any of that.

    • Hannah Nichols

      me

  • CDC

    I’m known in my family as the one that exaggerates everything, so it’s interesting to see it from this POV. Usually I reserve my exaggerations for jokes (my most recent zinger was saying that this guy who approached me at a bar was basically an ashtray with legs), but sometimes I do think I cross the line into the overly dramatic.

    When I say these things I just want to make people laugh, but I guess there’s an underlying message of “maybe you’ve taken it too far this time” when it comes to certain things. I don’t think I’m going to censor myself from now on, but definitely consider what I’m saying beyond the immediate joke.