This Ubiquitous Phrase Is Dumbing Down America

When The “What’s Up” Generation Grew Up

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

How many times a day does someone ask you, “what’s up?” I was a child in the ’80s. We used this empty phrase all the time while adults frowned at us for our lack of social grace. It was beneath adults to use such vocabulary.

Times have changed since the days of big hair and MTV. It’s now part of everyday parlance among responsible, well-educated adults. Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t throw this phrase at me. I always respond with one of two answers: “not much” or “nothing.”

I’ve never approached the question as an opportunity to launch into a monologue about my innermost thoughts, family life or work drama.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it means? There are two definitions to the phrase. You can usually decipher the “what’s up” variant from tonality and body language.

“So, Barry. What’s up?”

Translation 1:

I have absolutely no idea what to talk about, so I’m going throw out this vague, open-ended starter and put all the pressure on you to find a topic to discuss.

Translation 2:

I don’t really give a shit about what’s going on in your life, but out of politeness I’ll say “what’s up” since I know you’ll respond with “nothing” or “not much.” Then we can end the silly charade of cordiality.

Either translation makes the phrase sound rude and insincere. Of course, we don’t intend to be rude. It’s just that we’ve become so accustomed to the phrase; we fail to notice its shallowness.

Thank You For Asking

When someone asks how a family member is doing or how my kids are enjoying their basketball season, I might say, “thank you for asking” after I answer.

That never happens when someone asks what’s up.

I’ve never been a good conversationalist, despite years of efforts to remedy my deficiency. Perhaps that’s why the term annoys me so much. It makes a challenging endeavor nearly impossible.

It’s interesting to note that you rarely see this phrase used as dialogue in novels. It makes sense. No editor would allow a dialogue exchange like this.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Not much. You?”



How Should You Respond?

Here are a few suggestions that allow you to turn the tables on your “what’s up” conspirator. Each one of these suggestions is guaranteed to shock the other person into never using this phrase in front of you again.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m glad you asked. Have you read about the latest ISM manufacturing report from the Institute for Supply Management? If you don’t mind, can I read you the numbers so we can discuss the significance?”

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Soooo glad you asked. I noticed this weird looking thing on my inner thigh. Can you take a look?”

“Yo, what’s up?”

“Dude. You’re the best. Thanks for asking. My wife and I are losing our minds. The kids are driving us crazy with their constant fighting and bed wetting. We need a weekend getaway. Can we leave the kids with you for a few days?”

“Hey, what’s up?”

“You sure you want to know?”
“Um. Okay. Yeah.”
“Thank you. Can my boyfriend and I crash at your place for a week? We need to steer clear of ours while they try to eliminate the bed bugs.”

I suppose these snarky responses won’t work for most folks. You can always transfer the pressure back to the other person.

“Hey, what’s up?”
“I’m not sure what you mean. Can you be more specific?”
“I mean… what’s going on?”
“As far as what?”
“Oh, never mind.”


Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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