What do you mean by “really” really?: that American culture is under renovation?

Really with Seth and Amy SNL It's fashionable to say "really?" in a new way.

The old way of saying "really?" meant (roughly)

Wow, that's interesting.  Thanks!

As in:

"Did you know the Pittsburgh Pirates are the worst team in Christendom?


The new way of saying "really?" means (roughly),

"That's what you're going with?  I wouldn't have made that choice.  I wonder if you're an idiot."

As in:

"I'm thinking about moving to Connecticut."


The first really is using spoken with the upward lilt of a question.  The second really usually comes with an emphatic downturn in tone.  (It's heavy with scorn.)

I'm not sure when this new really arrived.  Certainly, a tipping point came when Saturday Night Live began running "Really?!? with Seth and Amy."  Phrases dream of this kind of exposure.  To be blessed by Lorne Michaels.  To be lifted out of the obscurity.  "Really" went big time.

But it's not enough to be elevated by Lorne Michaels.  A phrase doesn't flourish unless it speaks to something in our culture.  And that's the question: what does the sudden popularity of this little phrase tell us about ourselves?

Well, certainly, it's a way of saying "you're a moron" without have to actually say "you're a moron."  But this isn't new.  Americans are always eager to pass judgment on one another's intelligence.  Especially if they can do so without provoking a brawl.

The new really doesn't just judge the speakers' intelligence but also their judgment.  As in, "I saw what you did there and frankly…"  This carries with it the still deeper implication, one that says, "We are all working from the same rule book.  So I know the options you had at your disposal.  And, frankly, you choose badly." 

And this raises an interesting possibility: that we are moving to a different kind of social order.  (I just know someone is going to leave a one word comment to this post: Really.)  Are we moving from a "first-really" to a "second-really" society.

In the "first-really society," we expect other people to be surprising, perhaps even inscrutable.  We don't know what they are thinking.  We don't presume to know their options or to second-guess their choices.  This is because in the first-really society, we don't share a rule book.  We may have a rough idea of what others are thinking, but not much more. 

The US has traditionally been a first-really society.  Because Americans have always been diverse, it's tough to make assumptions about who the other is.  Americans are pleased to be credulous.  We are happy when astonished.  This is part of the point of the exercise, part of the pleasure of living in a world that is dedictated to experiment, audacity, and dynamism.  You just never really know.  Americans are more interested in authenticity and spontaneity.  A first-really world suits us. 

In a second-really society, people are scrutable.  Traditionally, second-really societies are ritualized, hierarchical, court societies.  Everyone knows the rules of the social game.  They are watching one another play their assigned parts.  Everyone's "on the same page."  Britain has always been a "first-really" world, especially when compared to the US.  In most social situations, the British are in a position to second-guess a social choice.  (But, of course, they do not say "really."  They only think it.)

So the question is this: is the US moving from being a first-really society to a second-really society?  Is it moving from a place that is reckless in its curiosity and credulity to one that is much more mapped and scrutable?  Is this US a more knowledgable, shareable social world?  Perhaps we now more alike, better able see the choices others make and pass judgment.

I will leave it to readers to weigh in on why this might be.  Here are a couple of possibilities:

1) that our absolute sense of expansion is diminishing.  Frontiers, most of them anyhow, are disappearing.  We are losing the sense of America as a place that grows boundlessly and recklessly.  The rise of China and India takes away America's heavy-weight crown as the most ferociously expansive economy.  Except in the digital domain, Americans feels like a more scrutable place.  Maybe.  (I'm trying this one on.)

2) that America is less diverse from an immigration point of view.  Our strangers are less strange to us.  We can made assumptions about a shared rule book.

3) that Millennials, to the extent one can generalize, were perhaps more completely socialized than previously generations.  It's possible that they have a rule book previous generations did not.  Boomers and Gen Xers both cultivated a sense of the wilderness of the world.  (Very different wildernesses, to be sure.)

4) that everyone is better at culture, more nimble, better at empathy, less alarmed by difference.  We are citizens of many worlds.  We do not share a single rule book.  We have access to many rule books.

Your thoughts, please.


See Seth Myer and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live here.

14 thoughts on “What do you mean by “really” really?: that American culture is under renovation?

  1. Brian Kenny

    The problem with using the language of Saturday Night Live as a cultural barometer is the same problem of using the language of Seinfeld as a cultural barometer. In the end, it’s not a real language used in a place that’s not a real place, yada yada yada… The fundamental change in us is that Americans don’t want real culture anymore, even in small doses.

    Americans don’t want 50-50 fake, or even 80-20 fake. They’ve tasted Hollywood movies, smelled Disney World & Carnival cruise-ship cruises, and have seen Chipotle in Minnesota.

    Americans of all classes now want fake fake 24-7.

    As a result, they get Bernie Madoff gourmet book-cooking,Wall Street selling sub prime bundles as investment cream puffs, and alligator wrestling in Indian casinos.

    Fake is so real, Americans don’t even want their kids to walk to school, and sometimes, they move them to South Lake Tahoe because they believe if only they move, life will be safer.

    Real culture in real places kicks, bites, stings, scratches, burns, and freezes. Really.

  2. Cynthia Young

    Grant, great post. It REALLY does get you to think a bit. Your observations make me wonder if the second-really is just a symptom of Americans getting use to a more bureaucratic-government standard set society and less accepting of a “wild west” entrepreneurial society.

    Brian Kenny also brought up some good points in his comment too, really! (the positive one!).

  3. Sarah

    There is also the “seriously” of Grey’s Anatomy, which is used in many of the same ways as the second-level of “really.” Maybe the world of Seattle Grace Hospital is more of second-level environment because of its limited frontiers with little diversity (everyone is in medicine, if not primarily surgical residents) and strict rule books.

  4. Rebecca Sparks

    A single sentence “really?” Has been an all purpose response for a long time. In addition to “old” (amazed) and “new” (sarcastic), there’s also the “I’m listening, go on” usage.

    X:”And then he told me that it wouldn’t be covered under the insurance because I called after 5:30pm.”
    X:”Yeah! And then…”

    But thinking back, I think of “new” really being said before by Mom’s.

    Kid:”I didn’t knock the lamp over, an alien did it!”

    It’s just a new usage of an old term,

  5. Tim

    The second “really” feels representative of FAIL culture – the impulse to dismiss something, publicly and a little gratuitously. Whereas we might have been generous with a criticism in the past (maybe the sentiment went something like “I don’t think that’s right, but I respect you enough to either point out where you went wrong or enough to argue the point with you”) now it’s an almost ostentatious dismissal (Loooooooooooooser! FAIL! What a noob!). So I might argue this doesn’t represent a shift from really1 to really2, but rather the creeping influence of internet culture a la 4chan into the mainstream.

  6. srp

    I don’t see much of a trend here. Not only do we have the long-standing use of “really” in just this way, but there are a host of other similar terms and phrases that have been around forever. “Sure,” “seriously,” “So how that’s working out for you,” “Uh-huh,” “hmmm,” “Whoa!,””Dude,” all can be given the “second-really” connotation with appropriate intonation.

    What I think is fascinating is how we are all able to process these subtle intonational differences even the very first time we encounter them.

  7. Joe Wasserman

    I think Tim’s comment on ‘FAIL’ is intriguing—it is clearly a negative evaluation, and in that way similar to second-really. But when reflexively ‘FAIL’-ing oneself, it seems to imply something about what it means to make mistakes. In addition to its pragmatic potential to save face by recognizing one’s faults instead of pretending they don’t exist, could it indicate a willingness to recognize the effects of a mistake as as fleeting as saying ‘FAIL’ itself? With or without trying to learn from what has happened? I don’t think you can ‘FAIL’ somebody’s decision to move to Connecticut until the negative consequences have been played out.

  8. ken

    I can’t understand how so many American cultural specialists don’t watch TV (unless it comes in a box set from Netflicks) I love that you pull from popular culture.
    Turning it around again, because we live in a post-fact society, I see it more as a part of the rising ethical economy. The ethical economy is a lot about judgments and people being judgmental. Really, the 2nd, plays in that same area – a judgmental statement: “I just bought a new BMW ” “really?”; “yeah I bought a new 3500 sq ft house in CT ” “really?”. It is a transitional moment. We still have some people living in an economy of ravenous consumption, while others are onto some other form of consumption (ethical for lack of a better word) but they are still talking. Really?

  9. Tom Brzezina

    If we truly are transitioning from a first-really to a second-really society, it’s game over. “Really” is similar to “whatever”—it’s baseless arrogance. It doesn’t even require an argument or a point of view. No thought, consideration, or even information necessary. I can simply be dismissive of anything that doesn’t point to me. This is self-satisfaction replacing curiosity. To quote a song from a more expansive era, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

  10. Tom Guarriello

    Just catching up. Mildly ironic dismissals (see, WTF?) are fun. They also provides us with hostility-deniability cover (meeting our need for affiliation) while still asserting our superiority over another (ditto for need for power), all while sounding resoundingly clever (need for achievement). Bingo: “really?” is a motivational need-meeting trifecta!

  11. Patrick Pearce

    Seems to me the upward lilt really is also used effectively as more or less playful sarcasm by a lot of folks these days. But the other purpose is to simply digest what the other person is saying while formulating a more appropriate (sharp, funny, cynical, etc.) response.

    Really was a useful word in the rise of 90s cynicism, which was a key defense weapon in the madness of the changing, crumbling (boomer?) world order and the rise of new voices and ideas then. If I harshly really’d you, I wouldn’t get hurt.

    Now that many of us (my mum included) have become relative blasé about the pace of change, realize the impracticality of dwelling on any impending apocalypses in our daily lives, and are more open to possibility of enlightening ideas from people of all ages, colors, even backgrounds we are suspicious of, my sense is that cynicism is down and really is becoming more flexible in its usage again.

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