So, I was just noticing...

dsop

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Many of the complaints about sentences beginning with "so" are triggered by a specific use of the word that's genuinely new. It's the "so" that you hear from people who can't answer a question without first bringing you up to speed on the backstory. I go to the Apple Store and ask the guy at the Genius Bar why my laptop is running slow. He starts by saying, "So, Macs have two kinds of disk permissions ..." If that "so" were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, "In which it is explained what the reader must know before his question can be given a proper answer."

Scientists have been using that backstory "so" among themselves since the 1980s, but its recent spread is probably due to the tech boom. In his 2001 book The New New Thing, Michael Lewis noted that programmers always started their answers with "so." That's around the time when I first heard it, working at a Silicon Valley research center. Mark Zuckerberg answers questions with "so" all the time: "So, it comes down to the economics ..." "So one of the services that the government wanted to include ..." But by now that backstory "so" is endemic among members of the explaining classes — the analysts, scientists and policy wonks who populate the Rolodexes of CNBC and The PBS NewsHour.

To my ear, that backstory "so" is merely a little geeky, but it rouses some critics to keening indignation. A BBC host says speakers use it to sound important and intellectual. A columnist at Fast Company warns that it undermines your credibility. A psychologist writes that it's a weasel word that people use to avoid giving a straight answer.

That's a lot to lay on the back of a little blue-collar conjunction like "so." But that backstory "so" can stand in for people's impatience with the experts who use it. When you hear a labor economist or computer scientist begin an answer with "so," they're usually telling us that things are more complicated than we thought, and maybe more complicated than we really want to know. That may be why they were called in in the first place, but as Walter Lippmann once said, the facts exceed our curiosity.

That backstory "so" puts me on guard, too, even when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. Usually it just introduces some background qualification that the question calls out for, as in, "So ... German isn't actually a romance language." But sometimes it announces some nugget of specialized linguistic knowledge that I feel the need to share. If that "so" were a chapter title in a Victorian novel, it would read, "In which the reader is asked, 'Are you sitting comfortably?' "
 

Nacci

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I find this very interesting and have noticed it increasingly lately.

My take on it is the the person beginning his response to your inquiry with “so” believes that your are an unsophisticated rube and is attempting to give you context like he would a child.
 

Tornado

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I adopted this by osmosis through working in tech. I never even thought of the origins, although I did notice when it started coming into use. I always thought of it as a filler word people used when speaking at conferences, and I have used it speaking at conferences in the same way. Not really sure how to start your point? Need a little time? Maybe you want to sound more casual? Start with, "So,". It's the newer, better sounding "Um.." or "Uh.."
 

Rotarded

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My career in management taught me that "So" is a red flag when asking a person/employee a direct question. Most often you have made them uncomfortable in the fact that they are either unable to answer, or are covering up. I usually interrupt "SO.." with "Answer the question", "It was a yes or no question", "Let me ask you in a more direct way". Then again, I am clinically diagnosed with A.D.D. and the 15 seconds you have my attention, best not be wasted.
 

Tornado

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I also agree that it’s used by people who think they need to pretend they’re smarter than you to like, explain anything. It’s makes them feel more secure but it’s just evidence of their lack of social skills and neglect of attention from their parents.
This depends on the setting. Many times the subject matter is complicated, and it's an acknowledgment that it is something that you are going to have to ease into. Among peers, there really isn't any pretentiousness about it.
 

DrummerJustLikeDad

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The usage of “So...” kicking off a reply is certainly noticeable and annoying, but I never realized it was supposed to be making me feel patronized, or that the speaker had just alerted me to his apparent superiority. Actually I just kind of saw it as the latest linguistic bad habit. One of those lazy bookmark words like “urm”, that masks a subtext which says, “Oops, caught me. Didn’t hear a word of you, but get ready now for the bit I’ve been practicing.”

However a few years ago, people suddenly seemed to be trying to substantiate their arguments by adding a smarmy “right?” to the ends of their sentences; as if having merely spoken some obvious and already-agreed-upon credo, my humiliating denial of which would have never gained me access to their exclusive conversation in the first place.

Useful flags when forging possible relationships though, I’ll give it that.
 

Jazzcrimes

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My career in management taught me that "So" is a red flag when asking a person/employee a direct question. Most often you have made them uncomfortable in the fact that they are either unable to answer, or are covering up. I usually interrupt "SO.." with "Answer the question", "It was a yes or no question", "Let me ask you in a more direct way". Then again, I am clinically diagnosed with A.D.D. and the 15 seconds you have my attention, best not be wasted.
So. . . The other reason is the person is trying to decide how to respond to a question that requires nuance and they know you perceive it as having a “yes or no” answer. So, there is that.
 

Seb77

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In German, we have something similar with "Also...". It doesn't have the meaning of English "also" but rather specifically that of this "backstory so".
I wouldn't say it's always impatient/patronizing/condescending, but it can be. Oftentiomes it could also be just a filler.

In old German you might read something like "es geschah also", referring to a something that was explained earlier: "it happened accordingly". Or, it could precede an explanation, maybe equalling something like "thusly". Used this way, it seems to connect two sentences. Using it to start a statement makes it seem somewhat out of of place.
Thusly might also equal something me and my buddies used to make fun of, which was to start a sentence with "Folgendermaßen,..."

What about starting a question with "So,..." is this a similar case?
 

frankmott

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I find this very interesting and have noticed it increasingly lately.

My take on it is the the person beginning his response to your inquiry with “so” believes that your are an unsophisticated rube and is attempting to give you context like he would a child.
So, is the word you're grasping for "condescension?"
 

Jazzcrimes

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So, In all seriousness. . . .

this does show how certain words/phrases are leading to reactions that may not be what’s intended. Much of this is local use of the term, and with the internet and globalization, this can be lost in translation so to speak.

I once worked for someone from the UK (I’m American) and had to learn very quickly that the term “right” as a response was not at all what I thought it meant (it meant “let’s move on” not “correct”).
 

Hop

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I find speakers that begin a statement with "I mean...." really frustrating.
You haven't said anything, so why are you already trying to adjust/correct the statement you have yet to make????
 

lrod1707

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The "So" that people use is sometimes a good thing. It saves you from having to hear or read "the whole story" which sometimes is not necessary. In business meetings it's a common tactic that's used. It sums up and gets a message across immediately without wasting any time. It's up to the receiver to interpret it and understand it for what it actually is.
 


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