Speech without thought

From “The principles of Newspeak” (appendix to 1984, where Orwell explains how the fictional Newspeak language works):

In Newspeak, euphony outweighed every consideration other than exactitude of meaning. Regularity of grammar was always sacrificed to it when it seemed necessary. And rightly so, since what was required, above all for political purposes, was short clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind … The use of them encouraged a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous. And this was exactly what was aimed at. The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets.

I’m always interested in / horrified by instances where I find myself speaking without thinking. I think there’s something to the above - if patterns of speech become too easy, they might decouple from conscious thought.

How does one do the opposite, and maximize the thought applied to each statement? Can (should) you ensure that you build a sentence from scratch every time?


Taking part in thoughtful discussions on the internet, I guess :) But seriously, I think the satisfaction of perfectly formulated thought plus a few say-now-think-later fuckups is what encourages me personally to apply thought, as you say. On the other hand, I see nothing bad about quick unconscious statements, when I feel comfortable to do so.

As for politicians… yeah, I guess, it is a problem. The best one can do is to analyze and question everything one hears. Easier to say, than to do. But I believe, it is possible to train yourself for such reaction. In a public speech case, alas, it is yet a problem to be solved.

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The quote is sexy but I honestly have no idea what you’re describing. I frequently notice that I come up with the stuff I want to say on the fly without planning it, but I do not remember ever having the experience of literally not thinking while speaking… Do you have an example in mind when it happened?

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haha you might have a stronger mind than me. But I’m also probably not describing what I mean very well.
Examples, wherein I posit B can speak without thought:

A: “Hello”
B: “Hi”

A: “… will that be ok?”
B: “Yeah, sure”

A: “<statement of a technical problem>”
B: “No, that’s impossible, something must be broken in <such-and-such configuration>”

Obviously there are degrees of thought involved in all cases! I don’t know how to measure them, but it’s certainly true that in no case is the amount literally zero. Also, I realize the second example seems trivial, but it’s not if you’re agreeing to something important. Another way of putting it is: consider p(“yes” comes out of my mouth || what you said). I think you can bump this number up substantially by adhering to familiar and pleasant patterns. And of course smiling warmly, brushing your teeth, appealing to my patriotic instincts, etc etc.

In English, I think this is more likely the shorter the response that’s required of B. I agree that the “spray of bullets” is quite rare, except perhaps when someone is panicking - and this of course is not what he’s describing.

Related phenomena

If I spend a few weeks interacting regularly with someone, I pick up phrases, mannerisms, and patterns of speech. These are not just “icing on a verbal cake”, they do actually change patterns of thought.

I find that when I’m feeling jocular I have a lot of sort of canned phrases that fall out of my mouth in response to certain prompts. Often said jokingly and certainly a far cry from political assertions but still troubling.

A more nefarious example (here straying further from the quote above) is reading over some text document or piece of source code, and acting “mechanically” based on what you’re seeing (oh, such-and-such is defined here, let’s go there…) but without actually drawing any logical conclusions from the streams of text you’re consuming. This can result in re-reading the same things several times and writing / speaking about them, but in a way that’s basically defined by the syntax of the text rather than its meaning. I think some version of this happens when people say things like “gosh I worked all day but nothing seemed to get done!”

Perhaps I have an unusually shallow mind but none of these examples are foreign to me, and indeed I commit verbal sins like this regularly. Happily, I think they can be recognized rather quickly and are easy to correct.

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Just left a door to door sales job with a Cydcor firm after a week, you can Google them and their cult-ish tactics. It’s pretty easy to notice after a few hours how literally every concern someone could have is answered by a few catchphrases and acronyms. All the repetition is really effective at convincing you to think in those terms - if you make a mistake, it starts to seem like your mistake is captured by failing to live up to those acronyms.

These acronyms neglect the million real reasons people won’t buy from you, and the truth that no system can change widespread public hatred of door to door salesmen. If you just persistently neglect the real reason someone is failing a lot of people are convinced their errors are within the system’s flaws, making them trust the sales training more.

Best thing it seems you can do is swap out jargon for plain language, not because jargon is technically wrong but because it reinforces the idea that errors are within the realm of your training. This has big implications for personal disputes as well, and it’s the real reason why you should identify behaviors you want changed rather than call names.


Best thing it seems you can do is swap out jargon for plain language, not because jargon is technically wrong but because it reinforces the idea that errors are within the realm of your training.

Very interesting - if I understand you correctly the jargon is a sort of way to label all the possible failures ahead of time? So that when you encounter one, instead of thinking “hm, how could I improve this?” you think “oh, it’s <failure_322>, that’s just the way things are”. This seems like an important point, names imply some familiarity and perhaps some immutability.

Could you give any examples of jargon?

Sometimes it’s “nothing you can do there” - that was called an LOA day, for law of averages. That’s jargon convincing you that you didn’t do anything wrong.

What’s more insidious is when don’t make mistakes and people just don’t want to buy from you, but you’re told to practice things like “having a great attitude“ or “taking control“ or “being indifferent“. This eliminates an important part of sales: recognizing that some customers are never gonna buy from you.

There’s no jargon for “Recognize that most people aptly loathe and distrust door to door salesmen to the point that you can’t survive on this job.” That takes thinking for oneself, and even if 99% of people lose money doing the job, reciting things like “have a great attitude” and “take control” works to eliminate the true explanation from your range of considered ones.


Yes, naming things is extremely powerful as a way to kill critical thinking.

Also, how did you get that job in the first place???

Lol a series of bait and switch tactics, plus my failure to do the research. They don’t really tell you what you do for work during the interviews and if you ask they just repeat some generic business words. Their connection to the larger corporation isn’t mentioned until you’re a week in, and by then I was already looking to move on of course.

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It’s not exactly “without thought” but the other big lesson from 1984 is that your space of “thinkable thoughts” is dictated by the language you have available to you. In extreme cases, that path takes you to fully automated speech.

That’s most obvious with greetings, where you can only reply to “how are you doing” with “good, how about you?”, but I’ve met plenty of people who seem to get through ostensibly substantive meetings the same way.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is just a symptom of dystopian and corporate culture. Spending too much time reading techno-libertarian insight porn will lead to using “misaligned incentives”, “coordination problem” and “inability to escape local maxima” as the explanations for all societal failures.


haha exactly. Words are like a bridge between association and thought: frequency of use puts certain words into your mouth, and then you’ll start thinking whatever concepts those words make it easy to think


It’s been a minute but this is worth a read, might’ve seen it on the Best of Twitter honestly.