What is it about OF COURSE that turns people off?

For some years now several friends and I have been spitting out fur and feathers over the way some people use the phrase “of course.” Why? I suspect it’s because “of course” harbours some rather stinky and pompous connotations, rather like when people say “utilise” rather than “use” and “at this moment in time” rather than “now.”

HTWB of course
And worst of all, it seems to mean that if you don’t agree with the connected statement or assumption, you are in some way inferior. Why? Keep reading…

What does OF COURSE actually mean?

Here’s the official version from Cambridge Dictionaries Online

1.To say yes or to give someone ​permission to do something:
“Can you ​help me?” “Of course.”
“May I ​look at ​yournewspaper?” “Of course you can.”
“Have you written ​yourEnglishessayyet?”
“Of course, I ​finished it last ​week.”

2.To show that what you are saying is ​obvious or already ​known:
“The Second World War ​ended, of course, in 1945.”

3.To show that a ​situation or a ​piece of ​information is not ​surprising:
“We ​arrived at the ​restaurant 30 ​minutes late so, of course, ​our​ reservation had been ​cancelled.”

OKies: let’s look at each of those uses of OF COURSE

Number 1: to say yes or to give someone permission to do something.

All very laudable. But wait a minute: the example of “have you written your English essay yet? – “Of course, I finished it last week…”

Why “of course?” Assuming the questioner is a teacher or a parent, why – by saying “of course” – imply that they should have known better than to ask? The use of “of course” here probably is grounded in teenage snottiness and probably is intended to put the questioner off the scent. And maybe the “of course” is intended as a smoke screen for someone who hasn’t actually finished their English essay after all…

Number 2: to show what you’re saying is obvious or already known.

This is where the inappropriate use of “of course” can really get unpleasant. That’s because people saying it can use it as a tool to try to make people feel inadequate, uninformed, “out of the loop,” and otherwise inferior.

And I bet you can think of a number of examples where this applies. E.G…

Your boss addresses the Monday morning staff meeting by saying: “of course, the news over the weekend announcing cutbacks in our industry means you will know that redundancies are something we may well have to consider.” What about the poor staffers who were out on the weekend having a life and didn’t catch the news? How dare s/he hide behind what has been broadcast publicly despite knowing (we assume) that not all staffers are glued to the daily news on TV or radio?

A local business person talks about their participation in an event to which you have invited them: “thanks for inviting us to participate but of course we are totally committed to the (elsewhere) events that week so can’t possibly be at yours.” Why “of course,” unless you’re implying that the other event is far more important than yours? That’s just soooo rude.

Number 3: to show that a ​situation or a ​piece of ​information is not ​surprising.

This one is very similar to Number 2 above, really. Its intention is, as the Cambridge Dictionaries Online suggest, to reinforce the fact that something isn’t surprising. But a lot of your success in reinforcing the fact that something is not surprising, lies in the way that you do it and say it.

We should all be open to logical and factual realities no matter how those are presented to us. But…we are human, we have egos, we don’t like to be patronised, and we don’t learn from people or concepts that make us feel inferior.

Phrases like “of course” may make writers, teachers, employers et al  feel that they are imparting knowledge to those less educated than they are, and who feel that they are scoring points by patronising not only students and staff, but possibly clients/customers as well.

This is not so any more, and in our current climate is likely only to enlarge the credibility gap between students and education (plus customers and businesses.)

What matters now? Reality, credibility and demonstrability.

Let’s do them all.

The bottom line is, only use OF COURSE if you’re sure you’re not patronising anyone

It may only be a “term,” but it’s one that can fire up some powerful … and not necessarily helpful … emotions across business and many other contexts.

What do you think?

Please share your views here …