December 9th, 2016

Perhaps my least-favorite word in academic discourse is “interesting.” Consider several common usages:

  • “I find it interesting that Professor Smith wrote X here, but he wrote y previously.” This is the hypocrisy charge. Most professors would not say, “I find it hypocritical,” so instead the professors uses “interesting,” or even the more exotic “curious” which has the same effect. (Relatedly, see Richard Re’s post on the “You, Too Fallacy”).
  • “Professor Smith’s paper raises interesting questions about X.” This is the incompleteness charge. Most professors would not say, “Professor Smith’s paper totally misses the point, and doesn’t even address these fundamental questions,” so they refer to the incomplete analysis as “interesting.” A close runner-up is “This paper raises questions that I hope are answered in future works.”
  • “That’s an interesting question.” This is the I have-no-fricking-clue response. Very often when a colleague, student, or reporter, asks a question that is totally off-the-wall, the professor has no clue what the answer is. Saying the question is “interesting” is a nice way of giving credit to the misguided inquisitor, and also buys a few seconds for you to mentally-cobble together a response, but it adds absolutely nothing. It’s a filler like “Um.” It also raises a possible rejoinder–are questions that do not receive such appellation “dull” or “boring”? Should students and colleagues not rewarded with the “interesting” honor feel offended? (Once a professor told me not to praise the questions of some students, because that makes other students feel like their questions were not worthwhile–I do not follow that advice).

“Interesting” is often little more a euphemism academics use to passively aggressive criticize something, which cannot do so openly.

Once you pay attention to how the phrase is used, you’ll never use it again.

I fight myself whenever I have the urge to use it. I’m positive I slip at times–especially when reporters ask insane questions. If you catch me doing it, tell me to stop.

Update: Crain’s Chicago Business explains that “interesting” has a similar usage in the midest.

If you must criticize, do so passive-aggressively. It’s been said that in New York, every insult is a compliment: “This is my buddy Jerry. He’s been bustin’ my balls for thirty years now. Right, Jer?” In the South, on the other hand, every compliment is an insult: “Well, aren’t you kind?”

In the Midwest, you’re never certain whether you’re being complimented or insulted. Midwesterners don’t like to sound critical or hurt anyone’s feelings, so we’ve developed code words that allow us to avoid stating an opinion altogether. The most important words to know are “interesting” and “different.” If something has merit, but you don’t personally care for it, it’s “interesting.”

“What do you think of the Vikings’ new stadium?”

“It’s interesting.”

(The story is told of a consultant who presented an idea to a group of Minnesotans, and thought it was going over well because they all said it was interesting.)

“What do you think of that mural under the Wilson Avenue viaduct of three dolphins copulating with the Queen of the Nile?”

“It’s pretty different.”

Calling something “different” suggests it violates a social norm, and that therefore, the person who is trying to avoid being insulting has been insulted himself, and would be justified in saying something much stronger—if he were the type of person who violates social norms.