Human as a Second Language: “Definitely” means “never”

The other night I was out for dinner with my friends Critter and Varmint (Aspie-positive NT life forms) and we got to talking about the many ways humans have of wiggling out of commitments.

One of these ways is the use of the word “definitely,” which, after some extensive observation, I have concluded actually means “never.”

We should definitely ... never mind.

We should definitely … never mind.

And combined with any or all of the words “should,” “sometime,” “check it out,” and “try,” you can be sure that the get-together you’re discussing (or the hairdresser/book/movie/whatever that you’re recommending) is just not going to happen.

For example, if you’ve met someone in a social situation and get to that point in the exchange where you’re negotiating another get-together, and the person says “Yes, we should definitely try to get together for coffee sometime,” you can rest assured that coffee will not be had and that person will forever remain an acquaintance.

This can be puzzling and downright hurtful, and especially so for Aspies, who, to put it bluntly, live in a world of misunderstandings and frequent rejections. It can be tempting at this point to become angry at the other person, and to take such a blow-off personally — in other words, to condemn the other person and to assume this is a reflection on you personally. To explain why this is not actually a valid or useful response, I will borrow from the teachings of The Big Bang Theory and of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), of which I am a huge fan.

This definitely sucks, but I shall accept it as a social convention.

This definitely sucks, but I shall accept it as a social convention.

First of all, there is no hard-and-fast rule stating that the other person must get together with you simply because you want this to happen (that’s the CBT rational thought, there). NTs are not as direct as Aspies can be (sometimes this is a good thing and is known as “manners”) and will often find a softer way of saying, albeit obliquely, that for whatever reason, they’re not interested in or able to commit to getting together with you at this point.

Second, the whole “we should definitely get together sometime” thing is actually part of a social convention that a lot of NTs follow. This is something I’ve seen often on The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon (arguably an Aspie) is quite often stopped in his argumentative, insist-y tracks by being told that certain things (e.g., the giving of birthday presents, or attending dull faculty wine-and-cheese parties) are simply non-negotiable social conventions and he needs to suck it up and play nice.

In this instance, the use of the words “definitely,” “should,” etc. is the NT’s way of signalling that your social exchange is coming to an end and it’s time for you both to go find someone else to talk to, or change the subject.

The subject of what constitutes an acceptance is a bit more complicated (OK, a lot…) but briefly, for the sake of comparison here, I would say that the suggestion of a date, time, and place (“OK, how about next Thursday at The Wobbly Duck Cafe? Does 2:30 work for you?”) and the exchange of contact information are signs that the other person is interested in furthering your acquaintance. (Needless to say, you can really overthink this, as Sheldon infamously does on the episode called “The Friendship Algorithm.”)

So, your two lessons are: first, know when you’re being blown off. Your clues are the use of the word “definitely” and the presence of any or all of the words “should,” “sometime,” “check it out,” and “try.” This is your cue to stop asking and move on.

Second, know that encountering the dreaded “We should definitely try to get together sometime” is not something you should take personally or use as a cudgel to beat either yourself or the other person. Rather, you are engaging in a social convention in which another person is trying to let you down gently. Let them. And find someone else to have coffee with.

~A.G.

You can definitely over-think the whole friendship thing. Let's try not to do that.

You can definitely over-think the whole friendship thing. Let’s try not to do that.

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4 thoughts on “Human as a Second Language: “Definitely” means “never”

  1. What a great post! I’ve thought a lot about this topic, but you nailed it. I’ve had many encounters over the years where I misinterpreted whether the other person wanted to continue the relationship. Now I have my wife to decipher their intentions. But this has made me go to the other extreme. Now I’m overly skeptical! It’s hard to trust yourself when you know that your impressions, at least initially, are probably inaccurate …

    • Thanks for your kind comment. 🙂 Figuring these things out is not an exact science, by any stretch of the imagination; but this is a realization I arrived at after quite a lot of observation. It might not be 100% reliable, but it’s at least a benchmark of sorts to (hopefully) keep me from making a nuisance of myself, or hoping for a friendship where none exists (which is something I used to do far, far too much).
      Glad you have your wife as a “Seeing-Eye Person” to help you decipher these things, though. I have my three (there’s a blog post on that from last year, if you’re interested) and between my own observations & their cautions, I seem to be doing much better socially now.
      Cheers,
      A.G.

  2. What about the other side of the coin? What about those of us who are Aspies and want to say “we should definitely do that sometime” while NOT implying to the other person that it’s never going to happen? How do we express that idea sincerely when the very concept has been contaminated by insincerity??

    • Good point. Well, since we Aspies tend to enjoy clarity, you could say “we should definitely do that sometime” and then clearly state your intent to follow up. :o)

      A.G.

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