What’s Just

Careful how you use that word, just. You can demean the obstacle, which can be good, and my efforts to get over it, which can be bad. You imply that it’s no big thing, that mountain that’s keeping me from my goal, or at least that it’s no big thing to you.

“I’m stuck on this decision I have to make in this story,” I say. “I don’t know if I should kill the villain or let him live.”

“It’s easy,” you might say, “just have him appear dead and then you can decide in the sequel.” You might imply the word duh. You might even say it.

Even if you’re right—even if you know a pass through the mountains or you have some excellent climbing skills—diminishing the scale of my challenge isn’t necessarily essential to solving my problem. Hell, it may not even be helpful at all. You don’t have to say, “I’ve climbed Everest, this is just the Rockies.” Even if you solve my problem (and maybe you haven’t because your immediate gut-check answer just doesn’t fill me with confidence that you’ve considered all the angles) you’ve also made me feel like a heel, a loser, or unfit for being troubled by it in the first place. Maybe I was looking forward to the accomplishment of scaling that mountain you just called a hill.

It may be simple or obvious to you. Not everything that’s simple or obvious to you is simple or obvious to me. Respect that others may be wrestling over a problem for good reasons, even if the answer seems simple to you. Simplicity and complication are sometimes a matter of position. Perspective matters.

It’s great that you’re on the side of the mountain with the elevator; that doesn’t shorten the trip on this side.

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comments ( 5 )

  • ReplyWill 24 Jan 2012

    Huh. So I actually published this whinging, did I? Huh.

  • ReplyLauren 25 Jan 2012

    I appreciate the post.

    It’s an insidious word, isn’t it? I have a tendency to use it against myself: “I’m just checking in…” or “I just wanted to ask…” Implying I don’t want to bother you. Look how harmless I am. Of course, that also suggests that the request following the “just” isn’t important. Assertiveness eludes me.

    I hope very much that I haven’t used it in correspondence or conversation with others in the way you’ve described, though I likely have, unthinkingly. It’s something I’ll definitely keep an eye out for in the future. Thank you for posting about it.

  • ReplyWill 25 Jan 2012

    To be clear, I use it to intentionally diminish my own writing with great frequency. I say, “This is just to find out…” or “I just wanted to ask…” in much the same way. Diminishing some things can be good, even as diminishing other things can be bad.

    Honestly, I am overreacting with this post. I certainly don’t mean, “Do not use this word, because it makes you a jerk,” as I do not subscribe to that sort of thing. What I mean is, let’s be careful when we diminish things. Also, as I said, I am overreacting.

    But what the hell, right? It’s just a blog post.

  • ReplyMark Truman 29 Jan 2012

    @Will – Great post! I do a lot of coaching, especially for kids, and I realized early on that saying “just” at the wrong time can make the obstacle worse instead of better. I think perhaps the greatest test for a coach is knowing when someone needs to hear the “just” to get over a hump, and when that same “just” will totally deflate the person’s sails.

  • ReplyYoda 13 Feb 2012

    A former boss admonished the writing staff never to use “just”, and he cut it from any scripts he found it in.