Dirk Knemeyer

“It is what it is”: the “stuff” of a new generation

When I was a boy, the word “stuff” really bothered me. It was used frequently, and it didn’t really “say” anything. A typical exchange would be something like:

A: “Hi B, what have you been doing today?”

B: “Oh, you know, work and stuff.”

Or…

A: “So B, what sort of things are you interested in?”

B: “I like Transformers and G.I. Joe and stuff.”

Or…

A: “Hey B, what did you guys do at the carnival?”

B: “All sorts of stuff!”

A: “Such as…???”

“Stuff” was a catch-all. As an overly precise little guy it drove me nuts that so many people said “stuff” in so many different contexts, in the process seeming to say nothing at all.

Fast-forward to the early 21st century. On the “reunion show” episode for last season’s Top Chef (a guilty pleasure) they did a short spot making fun of how everyone on the show would say “It is what it is” and that it was a total cliche. And as they showed many, many clips of the various judges and participants saying “It is what it is” it did seem quite ridiculous. Either on that show or in some other context, I “learned” that the expression started in New York City. It may or may not have, but that is not the point. Soon I realized that I was using “It is what it is”. Perhaps not a lot, but certainly more than I would like to. And if you are familiar with this phrase or you have heard it yourself, you likely know that it operates very similarly to “stuff”. It rarely adds anything to an interpersonal communication. It is, superficially at least, a passive acknowledgment that whatever is being referred to is existential; that is, quite literally, what can be seen and perceived from whatever is being referred to is exactly what it is, without subtext. Unless it is used ironically, in which case the subtext is understood.

Clear as mud, right? Stick with me, I’m getting somewhere that is potentially interesting, if not important.

Recently I used “It is what it is” again and, frustrated for my linguistic laziness, spent a few minutes really trying to figure out why I use it. And, like a thunderbolt, it hit me: there is an enormous gap between what I intuitively see and understand about things, and what I am able to competently communicate to someone else in a socially convenient way. In the example that started me off on this whole process of deconstruction, I was witness to a low-level conflict that was ultimately not very important but which was dripping with context just below the surface. I had a lot of insights on very interwoven and even independently complex things such as:

* The motivators of one of the people involved

* The ego conflict of another of the people involved

* Divergent understandings of what was at stake

* Incompatible conflict resolution styles that made it harder to work toward an optimal-for-all resolution

* Past history (read: baggage) that further complicated the entire process

And the situation resolved itself in a very ugly and illogical way. I knew the reasons why, very clearly, but they dealt with psychological and sociological things that people typically don’t understand unless far too much time is taken to provide excess context. Later I was asked about the conflict and I very succinctly shared the irrational final outcome, shrugged, and said “It is what it is.” I just didn’t want to take the time to throw out on the table all of the deeper inter-personal things I knew were going on with it.

Bingo! Now I understand! At least for me, “It is what it is” is my way of not trying to unpack all of the layers that I can see and understand but which can be difficult to explain, and even which many people are skeptical toward. It is walling off a certain block of content from being shared, either for reasons of time or ease or just sanity. It enables me to give a condensed report of things and tie off that which is not always easy to explain, or that I simply don’t want to explain.

Now, go back 25+ years to “stuff”. I believe the word and common use of “stuff” was a reaction to a consumer culture. In a world where the consideration set of things you can do or think about is increased exponentially from just a generation or two before, it is not necessarily easy to remember everything you did, or to take the time to examine and talk about everything. By saying “stuff”, you are walling off the conversation, including just what is important to you, or easy to remember, or what you are comfortable saying. Rather than being the default generic response from a disinterested child to a trying-to-connect adult, it is a mechanism to enable people not to have to deconstruct the physical particulars around them in an increasingly complex and new world. Rather than the tool of a flabby mind that little eight year-old Dirk saw it as, “stuff” was the “It is what it is” of an earlier generation: a shorthand way to say, “I’m either unwilling or unable to go into any more detail than this.” And it is almost certainly the product of a late-capitalist, consumer culture that was rapidly accumulating far, far, far more “stuff” than ever needed to be considered or dealt with in the year before it.

Doesn’t make sense to you? Hey, I’m not making this stuff up. You want me to explain it in more detail? It is what it is!

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