Afternoon Inquisition

AI: A Little Advice?

Changing things up, I’m taking over the Thursday AI from Sam.  Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit.

In fact, “don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit” is kind of what today’s AI is all about. Twice in the last week I‘ve heard my least favorite bit of ‘folksy wisdom’, the condescending and positively incorrect “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Hatehatehate this for so many reasons. Wildly untrue from biological, practical, literal, and logical perspectives, it’s also just so damn cloying.

Humans are fragile creatures in the world, and essentially dying every day of our lives (or at least moving towards death). How does it help to gloss over that with a outright lie? Bah. Hate.

What are your least favorite platitudes?  Why?  Do you have any little life instructions that do work for you?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.


A B Kovacs is the Director of Døøm at Empty Set Entertainment, a publishing company she co-founded with critical thinker and fiction author Scott Sigler. She considers herself a “Creative Adjacent” — helping creative people be more productive and prolific by managing the logistics of Making for the masses. She's a science nerd, a rabid movie geek, and an unrepentantly voracious reader. She doesn't like chocolate all that much.

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  1. My runaway least favorite “It’s all good!” It so isn’t.

    What works best for me is wisdom from Matt Dillahunty “Take the good and leave the bad.” Most experiences, no matter how crappy, can have a positive component even if it is just a painful learning experience.

  2. It always bugs me when people say “it is what it is.” How about instead they just not say anything at all, since that makes the exact same point?

    1. Interestingly, this is one phrase I use a lot, but I use it as a way to resign myself to whatever sucky thing it is I can’t control. It’s not a “good” kind of thing.

  3. At the top of the list is…

    “If it saves one life, it’s worth it…” Almost never true. If it were, we’d not be driving cars, skydiving, or allowed to drink alcohol.

    “If it is meant to be…” or “If it is my time…” or “everything happens for a reason, and other fatalistic platitudes. The universe is indifferent, folks. Nothing is “meant” to be other than in your own or other human being’s minds. The only “reasons” are human reasons. The universe doesn’t care about you.

    1. It’s true that everything happens for a reason. It’s just that, a lot of the time, the reason is that people are idiots.

      1. Everything happens for a reason, but people who say that usually mean that everything happens for A Reason.

        This is what I want to do whenever I hear someone say that:

        “My son died when a car hit his bike!”

        “Well, everything happens for a reason.”

        Me: “Yeah, everything happens for a reason. And the reason for this was that his bike was hit by a car driven by drunk driver. See, alcohol, when absorbed by the body, can have the effect of dulling the senses, so the driver didn’t notice your son coming. Also, your son wasn’t wearing a bike helmet, and the human skull can only sustain so much trauma. The car was traveling 65 miles per hour, and hit your son’s bike at an angle of…”

        1. “Everything happens for a reason, but people who say that usually mean that everything happens for A Reason.”

          Oh, sure, and I get that. It’s just fun watching their faces when I’m being deliberately obtuse on that point.

      2. I agree with deedub here. Most of the people saying that are implying there’s a higher entity or grand purpose (usually supernatural) behind it. They are not trying to say that everything has a cause, which is essentially a tautology.

    2. Yes, “everything happens for a reason” is my least favorite. It’s possible to find reason in unreasonable events. It’s even possible to make something positive out of a horrendous event. But it doesn’t mean that anything happens specifically the some mystical, illogical reasons people who use this platitude are referring to.

      Ugh! It makes me angry just thinking about it.

    3. “Everything happens for a reason” has caused so many awkward conversations between me and my mom, since she believes in this so strongly.

  4. I hate any saying that implies that we have lost our “intuitive” side, and place too much emphasis on our “logical/reasoning” side. Everything I read every day shows that logic and reason have gone out of the window.

    1. One of my coworkers keeps blabbing on about how we’re too controlled by our heads instead of our hearts – meaning, of course, that as a society we trust reason and logic too much and emotion not enough.

      Of course, she’s also heap big into Enneagrams, chiropractic and believing that Native Americans are inherently magical and wise rather than being normal humans as fallible as anyone else.

  5. I was just ranting about this the other day but “Cheer up!” and offers of things to cheer you up.

    Why must I be cheered up? Why can’t I just be fucking angry? If shit is angering, let me hulk out FFS!

    Or, putting things into perspective. Yeah I get it. My problems aren’t the entire universe. But you know what? They are to me. And somewhere right now, in the universe, there’s like entire galaxies being consumed by black holes and shit. I never see you considering that when you’re bitching about traffic or hipsters.

    1. But what if it makes me happy when you go all green and hulky on someone’s ass?

    2. Oh this is soooo me. A variant on “Cheer up” here in Britain is “Cheer up, mate, might never happen!” (often delivered in a faux-cockney accent.) Usually said to me while I’m just staring blankly off into the distance and my face has fallen into a neutral expression, which could be interpreted as somewhat sad-ish.

      Thing is – so what if I’m upset or worried about something – don’t we have the right to feel that occasionally? And what if I genuinely am pissed off about something? “Oh thank you kind sir, I was really upset about the freak meteor strike which robbed me of my entire extended family. But now that you’ve uttered those simple magic words “cheer up”, the world is suddenly a much brighter place!”

  6. “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

    What if the flies *are* the problem? What if, having repeatedly tried to *drown* the flies in honey, they just aren’t getting the message? What if the flies need to be taken down a notch?

    1. And you can catch more flies with manure than with either of those options. And why do you want to catch flies, anyway?

    2. As a sullen and scientifically-minded child who had heard this phrase many times, I actually tried it (pre-Mythbusters!). The vinegar caught a few more flies. The honey was too thick, they could usually walk on it. But a glass of V8 Splash caught way more flies than either of those.

  7. “Everything happens for a reason.”

    This overused piece of doo doo has my vote for the skeptic’s most hated platitude.

    I like the platitude:

    “Just take it one day at a time.”

    It helps me when I am worried about someone or something, especially when things are out of my control and just have to unfold.

  8. In addition to (and in the same vein as) some of the aphorisms listed here, I loathe “X# years young.” It’s even worse than when George Carlin complained about it, and truly, how terrified to you have to be of age & death for kids to use it?

  9. “There’s two sides to every story.”

    Bugs me because A) there’s often more than two sides, and B) just because there are multiple sides doesn’t mean that they are all equally well thought-out or based in reality.

    This has another that frequently accompanies it: “When you have two sides, the truth is in the middle”

    Nope, sometimes one side is unquestionably right. More often, the truth isn’t in the middle, but is completely outside of narrative coming from both sides.

    1. “There’s two sides to every story” makes sense when you’re only hearing one side of the story. When you hear the other side(s), then it’s legitimate to make judgements.

      And you’re right, the truth is rarely “in the middle.”

  10. Oh, and what works for me?

    Nothing’s ever so bad it can’t get worse and it’s usually when you let your guard down thinking things can’t possibly get any worse that they do exactly that.


    It’s never too late to start panicking.

  11. “Just get over it,” is one of my least favorite as a sufferer of clinical depression.

    1. Also “What do you have to be sad about? You have *lists good things about my life*” Great, now I’m depressed and I feel guilty about being depressed. Thanks.

  12. “Everything happens for a reason.” Not true and not helpful; and even if it were true, wouldn’t that just be depressing, knowing that there’s a reason shit happens to you and you’ll never know what it is/how to avoid more shit happening?

    What I tell myself when things are rough is, “You can only go forward.” And sometimes, “You can only do your best.” Might seem trite, but they help me focus on what I *can* do about a situation rather than what I *can’t*.

  13. My all time favorite saying is “Don’t Panic!”. One of my least favorite is “I’m exploring my spiritual side”, second only to “that’s your problem.”

    1. I love ‘don’t panic.’ It reminds me to use my brain and not spread my emotions all over the place.

  14. I hate “everything works out in the end”, or “everything happens for a reason”. I especially dislike the former, because unless you consider being dead ‘working out’, then it clearly doesn’t.

    I struggle with how to gently let friends know that I dislike these platitudes, especially when I know they’re trying to make me feel better.

  15. “It doesn’t matter who started the fight; it only matters who’s going to end it,” or “It takes two to have an argument,” or “It takes two to tango,” or “Be the bigger person.”

    Basically anything expressing the idea that parties in a conflict are always equally responsible for the conflict, and that neutrality and nonconfrontation are somehow virtues. In reality, conflicts are all-too-often not just a case of differing points of view; there is an aggressor and a victim. Refusing to take a side is tantamount to siding with the aggressor because it allows the status quo (oppression) to continue unchallenged.

    An aphorism I like is, “It’s hard to love other people if you can’t love yourself.”

  16. One of my friends in high school was fond of the “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” one. I finally looked him in the eyes one time after he said it and responded, “Polio.” He stopped saying it.

    One that I’ve adopted that works well for me is, “Keep breathing.” Slow, deep breaths are one of the signals to your body that an episode of high stress is over, so doing that consciously can work as a way to trick oneself out of a stress attack caused by everyday environmental stressors.

    I’ve also become fond of, “How does [what I’m doing now] get me closer to [Goal X]?” That’s a good one to keep from getting too tightly bound up in inconsequentialities.

  17. “Eat foods/use products/do whatever that don’t have ingredients you can’t pronounce.” Just because you never learned to pronounce the scientific name of a chemical doesn’t mean it’s bad.

  18. Nothing brings out the stupid platitudes like when somebody dies. “Everything happens for a reason”, “they’re in a better place”, and, when someone brings up a recent birth, “it’s the circle of life”. As if that dumb baby completely replaces my dead dad. Like, OK, it’s a philosophically valid point, and it really is some comfort that we’re all a part of the carbon cycle, but it’s totally unhelpful to proffer that shit for someone in the midst of grief.

  19. “What goes around comes around”

    I kind of wish it was true, but that doesn’t make it so.

    1. A similar issue arises when anyone mentions karma as though everything “evens out” in the end. It’s the just world fallacy sneaking in through a religious concept, and they don’t even see it.

  20. I’m not opposed to the phrase, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion,” I just hate how it is applied to things that are not matters of opinion.

    1. Or as Sen. Moynihan so eloquently put it: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”.

  21. I hate the common variant of “Everything happens for a reason.” “It must be God’s plan for me.” Interviewees say it in about every second TV news broadcast. What self-importance!

  22. “It is what it is” makes my teeth grind. I got a catalog full of sappy kitsch that had that phrase on something about every other page. Another that’s been popping up in the cybersphere lately is YOLO (you only live once). Well, duh. It seems to be being used as an excuse for lots of bad tattoos. I’ve always been bugged by rhyming expressions – do the crime, do the time; walk the walk, talk the talk; cruisin’ for a bruisin’. They’re so juvenile. You always hear coaches saying them. And of course, the old standard, god has a reason/plan. Grr.

  23. I really hate the saying “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” Just everything about it. The tautological definition of “the end” especially. And yes, as we know because of science, in the actual end, everyone you love is dead and life itself is impossible because of heat death.

    Also, excusing unethical behavior with “just doing their job” drives me up the friggin’ wall. If dressing in stormtrooper armor and using chemical weapons on nonviolent protesters is your job, I’m pretty sure you have a responsibility to NOT do your job.

    1. Also, excusing unethical behavior with “just doing their job” drives me up the friggin’ wall.

      I also hate this one, but ESPECIALLY when people use to excuse sexist or racist behavior of corporations. This comes up all the time with bad movies where many people rush to assure me that the producers were just catering to a market. But all I hear is “Hey, they’re not sexist; they’re just so greedy that they’re willing to propagate sexism for money!” Yeah, not very convincing.

    2. “I really hate the saying “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” Just everything about it. The tautological definition of “the end” especially. And yes, as we know because of science, in the actual end, everyone you love is dead and life itself is impossible because of heat death.”

      This. What, so if everything is going fine, it’s the end? The end of what? If things were fine and then get bad again, was that not the end, or is this now the post-end?

      Absolutely no sense.

  24. I hate it when people say “everything happens for a reason.” No, it doesn’t. I’m pragmatic so I do tend to view a bad experience in my own life and see what good things I can take from it. But just because I can get something out of it does not mean that bad thing happened for that reason.

  25. I’ll probably sound like Miss Manners but I can’t stand when I give a grateful “thank you” and someone says, “no problem”. Serious slacker response.

    1. Wait, not to derail, but what do you mean by a slacker response? What do you say if “you’re welcome” feels too formal for the situation? Or if what they are thanking you for cost you very little effort and you don’t want to make a big deal about it?

      1. I realize it sounds uptight; but the phrase just rubs me the wrong way. If it’s “thanks”! and “sure”! as a response, fine. Mostly I get it from restaurants; I give a sincere thank you, and I get, “no problem”. Just sounds flippant. It was my favorite aunt and grandma who taught me manners, and I know they would not like the phrase either. ;)

      2. I’m with Luna on this one. “No problem” as a response always makes me think, “So, if it had been any sort of a problem at all, you wouldn’t have done it?” Hence, it’s a slacker response: “The only reason I did it was because it cost me nothing.”

        I’ve also never experienced “You’re welcome” as being too formal. It may no longer be the standard response, but it remains appropriate.

        1. You and Luna and her grandmother are just plain wrong. You’re Welcome is not the only traditional, polite response to Thank You, and never has been.

          The phrase Thank You exists to convey gratitude and acknowledge social indebtedness for a favor or gift. The response is always to acknowledge the gratitude and to minimize the debt owed, by either forgiving it (You’e welcome or Any time or I’m happy to be of service), or deferring it (I’m sure you would do the same) or minimizing the size of the debt (It was nothing or the traditional French version of You’re welcome, Ce n’est rien, which means the exact same thing.) No problem (or the Australian equivalent, No worries, mate, mean the same as the latter, just somewhat less formal.

          What would be impolite would be to either fail to acknowledge the debt, or to fail to respond to the thank you, not the form of either, especially not when merely adapting the acknowledgement and response to the circumstances. And remember, it is the person saying “Thank You” who owes the social debt, not the other person. They’ve done you a favor, they do not at this point owe you anything.

          I was thinking of drawing a network flow diagram at this point, illustrating the protocol, and a flow chart to show the decision process, but I’m too lazy to figure out how to insert them, so imagine them here. You’re welcome.

          1. For anyone who is reading this month’s book club book, according to a quote on page 119, Alan Turing found it peculiar that Americans always say “You’re welcome” whenever someone thanks them for something.

          2. For anyone who is reading this month’s book club book, according to a quote on page 119, Alan Turing found it peculiar that Americans always say “You’re welcome” whenever someone thanks them for something.

          3. Hey Buzz, my grandmother was NEVER wrong (I would not be a good granddaughter if i did not say so) and read my comments more carefully. I never said it was an incorrect response. I made it clear it is personal preference. I suppose I’d still be amused by a flow chart though, if you need to make one. :)

  26. Okay, I realized that wasn’t a platitude. So sorry, a bad sinus infection has my head all fuzzy.

    Here’s one: when my cat was misdiagnosed (thank goodness they were wrong) and we thought he was dying of cancer, there seemed to be a new annoying catch phrase that everyone had for me: “Enjoy him while you can”!

    I wanted to say, STFU.

  27. I hate the one where someone proclaims that kids today are over-diagnosed (with learning disabilities and such) and over-medicated. How the heck do you know? Do you know how long it takes to do all the tests for a diagnosis, and how qualified the doctors have to be? It takes all day with someone with twice as much school as you had. Do you really think that so many parents are giving drugs to their children that aren’t needed or helpful? Would you? Then why do think other parents would?

  28. “Might as well”/”better safe than sorry”/”what’s the harm?”

    Generally, it refers to people doing paranoid and even potentially harmful things in the hopes of preventing some stupidly rare occurrence.

  29. I don’t like it when people, to show the silver lining to someone who experienced trauma, say something like, “Well, you wouldn’t be the same person now if that hadn’t happened.”

    Yeah, that’s true, but why would you think that the person you are now is the definite best of all possible outcomes? Who’s to say you wouldn’t be MORE awesome if it weren’t for the trauma? I’d probably be the same sort of person if my dad weren’t an abusive alcoholic, but I wouldn’t have had to work nearly so hard to, say, make friends and acquire social skills.

  30. “He’s not a bad person, he’s a good person who did a bad thing.”

    If you are a Nobel Peace Prize winner who just jaywalked, then you are good person who did a bad thing.

    But I SWEAR the next time somebody within dope-slapping range says this about a bank robber, murderer, or sex offender, I’m going to become a good person who does a bad thing.

  31. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” “It is what it is” and anything else that doesn’t mean anything at all but is presented as if it’s profound words of wisdom. “Everything happens for a reason” is also pretty annoying.

    The litany of Tarski works for me as an exercise when looking at evidence for or against beliefs I’m attached to. The litany is a template that can be stated about any fact.

    If X is true, I desire to believe that X is true;
    If X is not true, I desire to believe that X is not true;
    Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

  32. “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

    Words to live by.

    Maria used to have a corollary: “Fuck you, I like what I’m wearing.” Best delivered in a drunken slur.

      1. If it’s hateful, it’s not a joke.

        But if there’s two ways to take a comment and one of them is awful: the people who insist I meant it the awful way when I definitely did not? Fuck ’em

  33. Oh this is a good topic, I have a few of these…

    “Man up”. No, what if I don’t want to man up? What does manning-up even mean? Few sayings are more likely to bring on my inner rage. (Which ironically could be a form of manning-up, I guess?)

    “You can’t have your cake and eat it”. Again, probably a British thing. How could you possibly eat a cake if you didn’t have it in the first place?

    But the worst one for me at the moment is the truly insufferable “Keep Calm And Carry On” meme that’s been sweeping Britain the last few years. Supposedly sums up our Blitz spirit, our stiff upper lips in the face of calamity. And, as demonstrated by the country-wide panic-buying of petrol earlier in the year due to some off-hand remark by some idiot government minister – it’s complete and utter bollocks.

    (Also, it’s making me start to loathe the font Gill Sans, which makes me sad to the depths of my graphic designer’s soul…)

    1. I’ve always heard it as “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Well, that’s bloody obvious, isn’t it? And what would you do with a cake other than eat it? (Maybe I shouldn’t even ask…)

    2. This one always baffled me. Why not eat half the cake? Then you have your cake and ate it too.

    3. I ran into something recently that seemed to indicate that the phrase originally meant something along the lines of, “You can’t eat your cake and, having consumed it, still have it.” Unfortunately, the presentation sucks.

    4. I heard that the phrase was originally, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” which makes a lot more sense. I try to use it that way, if I ever do use it.

  34. “You can’t prove it’s not true” usually used to back up some unfounded claim.

    Sometimes I will try to explain the burden of proof and Occam’s razor and so on but usually I just walk away with a headache.

  35. “It works/-ed for me!” Either as a response to an argument against the efficacy of a supplement or drug, or in ads for supplements or drugs.

  36. “You can’t prove a negative.”

    People who say this tend to disregard falsifiability. They cannot possibly remember the aether. And how it was disproven.

    1. Also, “Do unto others.”

      Not everyone wishes to be treated the same way. I would want to be given bacon. So does that mean I should give bacon to a Kosher or Halal person? What about doms and subs? When I go into a store, I wish to be left alone. In fact, most of the time I do. If I did this as a store clerk, I’d be fired.

      1. “I would want to be given bacon.” This is my new response to every time anyone asks me “well, what do you want?”

  37. I have to agree with “everything happens for a reason”. I either don’t hear that all that often, or I never quite thought about it too deeply, but manoman you guys are spot on with the many crummy ways that can be used.

  38. Ooh, JS Darwen, your dislike of “man up” reminded me of the female corollary that I hate: “put on your big-girl panties.” Ew. Ew. Ew. It evokes images of training pants, diapers, grannie panties, all sorts of “other people’s underwear” thoughts that I’d rather not have in my head. Can’t people just say “grow up?”

  39. “It’s not the end of the world”.
    One of my least favourite responses so an expression of annoyance; trivialises whatever it is I might be angry about and implies I’m over-reacting and shouldn’t be letting it get to me. Usually results in the opposite of the desired effect.

  40. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” This was actually said to me more than a few times several years ago, when my fiance’s throat cancer was diagnosed as terminal. I finally snapped and said something like, “Yeah, but that window’s on the 19th floor and God’s standing on the sidewalk shouting, “Jump! Jump!” Your god’s a sick bastard.”
    This, of course, was just met with blank stares and awkward silence. Ah, well. Kind of wish I was sorry.

  41. Ooh, my pet peeve appears unique.

    “I am/was just playing devil’s advocate.”

    Oh, you mean you were TROLLING ME?!?

    Fuck you. If you want to do it in the interests of education and sharpening up our arguments, then just fucking say so. Don’t pretend to be an ass. It just makes you look like an ass.

  42. Here’s one that gives me the shits at work, I don’t know if it is strictly a platitude or what but definitely played smugly as a trump card:

    “You are(or we would be)the ONLY one/s doing that”

    Used as an argument against adopting a novel solution proposed or already in use.

    I work with a bunch of sheeple. Apparently we have to follow blindly in others’ footsteps. Does anyone else get that?

  43. “God only knows”
    Not exactly a platitude, but annoying nevertheless: “Suomalainen sisu”, “finnish guts”, used when you work yourself to death for a tiny reward. Slaving away is considered to be a virtue in Finland.
    “After good times must come bad times”. A platitude yammered away by politicians when there’s a recession going on. Why didn’t anyone tell me when the times were especially good? I didn’t notice anything.

    (… Sorry for the bad English…)

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