“Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I think I’ll go eat worms.”
Years ago, the old nursery rhyme above was sometimes used as a teaching moment for a child who was over-reacting to a personal situation. An argument with a best friend or not being selected for a team caused them to generalize or to make the situation seem worse than it was. Using an example that most children found humorous, the rhyme highlighted the exaggeration, and helped the child put things in better perspective.
As we reach adulthood, we are expected to view situations and problems more accurately, to be discerning, and to limit generalities. We are expected to be open minded and to see other sides. Yet, we are surrounded by people who speak (and think?) in absolutes. We see it on tv and on social media, especially in today’s political climate. Listen carefully and see how frequently you hear phrases like “Everyone is against X,” or “We all believe Y.” Who made that decision? How do they know what “everyone” thinks or believes?
Speaking in absolutes is also common in the workplace. It usually happens when someone is especially passionate and focused on a specific plan or perspective, or when a colleague is trying to convince the team or the boss that theirs is the best solution. They use phrases like, “Everybody knows moving slowly isn’t the best option,” or, “Nobody wants to be responsible for what happens if we take this risk.”
Instead of being persuasive, using such phrases can convey a sense of desperation. It can indicate the lack of a well thought out strategy, or, more often, absolutes are used when an individual thinks she or he is losing the debate. In addition, it can give the appearance that the speaker does not value diversity of thought or the opinion of others.
The next time you hear someone make an argument based on the “everyone and nobody technique” think about why they are resorting to that method. Also think about whether or not you are swayed by such a tactic?
And the next time you are tempted to start a sentence with “Everyone” or “Nobody,” —to speak in absolutes—remember the nursery rhyme and how childish and whiny it sounds. Then, come up with a better approach.