A popular phrase uttered by policymakers, administrators, and activists is “I want to have a conversation about…” Many big topics can fit with these words, apparently, from racism to classism to higher education and the rise of robots. Sometimes the desired conversation is national in scale, or just institutional.
There’s something wrong with the way this phrase plays out in reality, however. Conversations either fail to materialize or simply carry on in much the same way. The topic they address continues in its path, undisturbed. So why do leaders and public figures keep relying on that rhetorical gambit?
Perhaps “I want to have a conversation…” is a code phrase, standing for something else. Those in the know automatically suss out its real meaning, while the rest of us get to guess at a translation.
As a public service, I’d like to offer some translations.
When someone in the limelight says “I want to have a conversation about [x],” they really mean:
- “I don’t want to do anything about this topic, in reality.” A smokescreen for inaction.
- “A conversation is happening somewhere, but I don’t like it.”
- “A conversation is happening somewhere, and I want to take some credit for it after the fact.”
- “There might be a conversation occurring on social media, but I [disdain/don’t understand/can’t be bothered to engage with] social media.”
- “I and my staff haven’t decided on a stance about this topic, so we’d like to buy some time while you all thrash things out.”
This one might be the most important:
- “I want everyone else to have a conversation because I don’t want to spend any money on this.”
Have you seen these translations in practice? Are there any other meanings we’ve missed?