The old way of saying "really?" meant (roughly)
Wow, that's interesting. Thanks!
"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."
"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.