YEAHRIGHTConsider the following exchange:

“That movie was terrible.”

“I know, right?”

What is so wrong with simply saying “I know?” Or even just “right” as an affirmation on its own?

Despite plenty of other options, this question and simultaneous expression of agreement has become so common that it’s hard to imagine it sounding off to the ear. But it’s actually a strange turn of phrase, and one I suspect has come into wide use only recently (the last 10 years or so). The oldest relevant entry in the urban dictionary — “A way to express the concept of ‘yes if you are not quite articulate enough to say that mighty imposing word” — was created in 2003 (urban dictionary lauched in 1999).

So how is it that a word which has always conveyed direct agreement has been rethought and re-presented in the form of a tentative question? What does this tell us about how people view making concrete claims? Or about their ability to have their voice heard?

First however, another recent phenomenon: Any composition instructor will tell you that student writing has long been full of the phrase “I feel” — a qualifier placed before a more definitive claim (often something factual) that weakens the writer’s voice and makes even otherwise clear-headed writing unbearably tentative, weak, and frustrating. (E.g. “I feel like a lot of people live in New York City”). Mikael Awake has a great take on this over at McSweeney’s.

In our age of cultural relativism, where no one opinion is better than any other, the “I think” or “I feel” that so often precedes straightforward claims or judgements (however controversial or not) is designed to make the listener/reader absolutely sure that the idea being expressed is just an opinion, one that doesn’t hold any special weight or shouldn’t be viewed any differently from any other claims or ideas. Since the claim is no better or worse than any other, it need not be defended, examined, or understood to have any consequence at all. It’s the easy way out.

“Right” now has cultural traction as a question, and this is part of the same overall trajectory toward presenting one’s ideas as things to be considered, more things populating a level playing field. People might want to voice their agreement, but they don’t want to seem too sure about it, too committed or set in their ways, unwilling to compromise. “Right?” allows the speaker to do both at the same time.

There’s reason to be cynical about this. What will happen to careful, well-reasoned and well defended arguments? To the careful exploration and staking out of important claims? Isn’t it true that some ideas really are better or worse than others?

But there’s good news, too. The compromise implicit in “right?” means that people are trying to be nice, to be tolerant, to hold up their ideas as things that are always open to questioning,  revision, and interpretation. This type of tolerance and openness may be the kind of thing we could all use more of.