Is it obvious?

I was in San Francisco yesterday, interviewing for a job with my ideal company. In the first interview, which was a more technically focused one, I noticed that I often prefaced what I was saying with “well, obviously” or just “obviously”. When I noticed that, I commented on it out loud: “hunh, I’m not sure why I’m saying that – I don’t know what’s obvious to other people – it’s all based on individual experience and familiarity with things.”

The fact that I thought “why am I saying that” led me to re-read Nick’s post “Why am I saying this?” and to really reflect on what the word ‘obviously’ means when I say it and what it might mean to others hearing it. When I was saying it, I wasn’t really meaning that what came next was necessarily obvious to anyone – myself included. It’s a verbal tic that I developed at some point along the way, and probably an inherently defensive/self-protective one. I don’t feel like delving into all the subtle biases and one-upmanship that often happens in tech, and how people who don’t look like what everyone thinks of when they think of someone in tech learn coping habits, but I suspect that’s where my ‘obviously’ comes from.

So let’s walk through what it means to me and what it might mean to others.

What is going through my head when I say ‘obviously’ at the beginning of a sentence?

  • “Oh, shoot, I wasn’t thinking – I know the answer but still needed a cue to pick up on it. Dammit, they probably think I’m an idiot now!”
  • “This feels like a trick question…” [the answer to this question can’t possibly be the obvious one (to me), so saying ‘obviously’ is a way to prompt them to provide more hints/details]
  • “…” (i.e. nothing at all) – the word can be just a linguistic space-filler or habit. I have a few of those & I’m trying to identify and remove them (‘definitely’ is definitely top of that list)

What goes through my head when I hear ‘obviously’ at the beginning of a sentence? (putting myself in the listener’s place)

  • If I didn’t know what was being said: “Oh shit, I’m the only person here who didn’t already know that. I should have known that. I’m horribly under qualified to be here!” [Depending on how they said it, I might also think they were a bit of a jerk who wasn’t supportive of people with different experience and knowledge.]
  • If I did know: That depends on how they said it. If it was neutral/verbal tic, I might not even notice the word. That’s the best case. In the worst case, I’d probably think they were a bit of a jerk who wasn’t supportive of people with different experience and knowledge.

So where’s the upside in using ‘obviously’ word to introduce a statement? The only value seems to be protecting my own identity/ego. And since I’m working on not doing things to protect my identity/ego because that protection leads to lack of real communication and connection between people, any upside to me is heavily outweighed by the potential downside to others. Allowing myself to be vulnerable, and to be wrong, and to be seen being wrong is an important growth goal for me.

In fact, there seem to be a lot more obnoxious ways to use the word ‘obviously’ than helpful ones and I’m going to work on purging it from my spoken usage *. Even if something does seem obvious to me, what value in stating that? How does that help anyone with anything?

* I was trying to think of genuinely inoffensive ways to use the word and the best example I could come up with is play/stage direction notes and narrative:

  • “Kara was obviously moved by the story she heard”
  • “Michel was obviously upset with the situation”

But for first-person usage? I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea. [Maybe in cases where defensiveness is actually warranted (Barty Crouch has just accused you, Harry Potter, of casting the Dark Mark, I guess?)]