Get out of your comfort zone: stop using clichés

Some time ago I was participating on an external interview panel when I noticed that one of my fellow interviewers, a senior manager, seemed to use a cliché in every question. He would ask candidates what they did when they were ‘outside their comfort zone’, or whether they were good at ‘thinking outside the box’, or what they would do to ensure a ‘win-win situation’, or how they would manage things ‘going forward’ (one I particularly detest). It became so bad that I simply could no longer listen to the actual content of his questions, I was so mesmerised by the anticipation of each new banality; and I was full of admiration for the candidates, who seemed to be able to rise above the verbal fog.

But the experience marked me, because now I wince whenever I hear any of these awful phrases. Or ones like ‘dumbing down’, ‘moving the goalposts’,  being ‘on the same page’, wanting a ‘level playing field’.

But what is so bad about these expressions? I also must say lots of things that really irritate others, so who am I to complain? I suppose there are two points to be made. First, any kind of expression that gets to be repeated endlessly is going to sound bad very quickly. But the second objection is more important, and its implications more interesting. Most of these clichés use metaphors, which is fine when the speaker has a sense of what they are doing with them, but bad when the imagery of the expression is being used accidentally and without any real linguistic appreciation.

Really, I should apologise, for this must all sound very patronising, and many people who use clichés are highly respected individuals. But nevertheless, we are caught up in a process of mangling our language, and we should stop trying to be clever with it and start putting things in a way that make sense and express something real. And we should stop repeating ad nauseam expressions we heard from someone or other which we think sound cool; in fact, we should all stop singing from the same hymnsheet. It’s annoying.

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11 Comments on “Get out of your comfort zone: stop using clichés”

  1. Scott Says:

    I believe we Americans live in the capital of cliché use, so it’s of some comfort that this is done elsewhere, too. Corporate presentations, which I now as a telecommuter am blessed to experience at some distance, are filled with the phrases in the Bingo game Iain linked. The more I listen to such presentations, the more I think they’re a handy crutch for filling out sentences so the speaker can feel as though he or she is sounding informed and professional and not grasping for words. Really, though, clichés muddy the message and assume a shared understanding. Choosing words and phrases with the goal of precise communication is harder but of course more effective at the end of the day. 🙂

    As a corporate editor, I’m currently fighting against the suddenly ubiquitous phrase “across the globe.” Perhaps our company has finally become a flat-earth society.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    Some of my own irritants include do you have the bandwidth for this? and your next window, not to mention any or all sporting metaphors.

    But there is a more serious point to all of this, and that is that this kind of cliché-ridden conversation – especially in interviews and business meetings – puts ESL-speakers at a real disadvantage. Hard enough to get the nuances of ordinary everyday English when you’re not fluent, but far worse when seemingly-meaningless phrases come your way that everyone but you seem to understand.

    • Jilly Says:

      I think it’s a Jay McInerney novel (but I can’t remember which one) where a character says that if men on Wall Street were prevented from using sporting or sexual metaphors to discuss business, they’d be reduced to conversing in binary code…

  3. Vincent Says:

    You would have to wonder if the gobshite who came up with the ‘rising tide lifting all boats’ now uses the more apt and very much more accurate ‘bolting the stable door after the horse has gone’. While, the inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery, just smacks the sucker on the sweet-spot. A ‘sweet-spot’, being the point a tweak above the middle of a nail-hammer, not some idiotic reference to Golf, Tennis, Cricket or any other ball sport. Just when exactly did sports-people become Heroic, Trojan and epic. And who who has read to stuff would ever use it describing schools sports.

  4. Jilly Says:

    In our own profession (though this is probably shared by several others), the two which currently annoy me the most are ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’.

    Like you, I particularly hate ‘going forward’, although the most painful version of it is ‘on a going forwards basis’.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    It’s particularly pathetic when university presidents routinely use such language. Obviously I’m not referring to the one whose blog this is.

  6. Ruth McLoughlin Says:

    Nothing like a good himsheet.

  7. Max Says:

    I am all for “leaving my comfort zone” and doing something where I find myself in a productive sort of discomfort. However, when I hear the phrase “let’s get outside our comfort zones – that’s where the magic happens” ubiquitously and tossed out as a way to encourage people to meet their deliverables in a “gun-ho” fashion….I find myself with the opposite feeling. My desire to stimulate self-growth professionally just goes zap, out the window. Completely agree with not using phrases ad nauseam.


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