May 17, 2007

More interesting

Jake Tolbert writes:

You know, it's interesting. I just read your post about 'it's interesting' ("Interesting times", 5/12/2007). No more than two days ago, I was practically driven mad listening to NPR as I drove home. The interviewer would ask a question that started with, "you know, it's interesting that such and such. What do you think?"

And the response was "It's interesting. Blah blah blah."

I wish I could remember what the interview was about, or when it was, and I'd try to find an clip of it. If it comes to me, I'll pass it along.

A search for {"you know it's interesting"} gets 143 hits on Google, and {"interesting question"} gets 687. And none of them seem to be in clips from George W. Bush.

Joseph Ruby writes:

As a lawyer I come across this usage in the papers of opposing counsel from time to time. It is sarcastic and implies that the person advocating the interesting position is a hypocrite and a liar. That is how Garry Trudeau's Bush is using it. But it appears from your quotations that the real Bush doesn't use it this way.

By "this usage", I think, Joseph means phrases like "I find it interesting that X", as in the phrase that Trudeau attributes to President-Bush-the-cartoon: "I find it interesting that Congress wants to abandon our troops by defunding them."

As Joseph says, I was unable to find any instances of this kind in quotations from President-Bush-the-real-person. He uses interesting at a relatively high rate, but it seems to be generally for the same reason that NPR interviewers and interviewees do: to set a positive tone, to highlight pieces of discourse, and perhaps sometimes to fill time while composing an answer.

An imputation of hypocrisy and/or dishonesty does seem to come up in some of the results of a search for {"I find it interesting that"}. In general, though, there's an added element in such cases, namely some sort of meta-comment on someone else's discourse. The structure is something like "I find it interesting that X asserts Y", or "I find it interesting that X doesn't mention Z", or "I find it interesting that the one who says Y is X". The effect is to evoke questions about X's motivations, and thus to cast doubt on X's arguments.

The top-ranked hit, this weblog item from 2/7/2003, evokes several layers of irony in the present context:

I find it interesting that most webloggers I read aren't commenting on Colin Powell's remarks before the U.N. the other day. I wonder if webloggers are scared of admitting to the world "well, he sure does have a good point?"

And the second item, from a Windows partisan on a forum, is

I find it interesting that the guys posting ... ... negative comments about Vista here are 1. Linux for Me and 2. Arm A. Geddon who's tagline is "gnu/ choice to the neX(11)t generation.".

A couple of items down the list, we find:

I find it interesting that people who say I'm wrong about wages being based on supply and demand ... ...resort [to] personal attacks against me, instead of giving a different explanation of how wages are determined.

In the last two examples, the "I find it interesting that the X WHO SAY Y" part forms the header of the post.

Interesting has a completely different impact in those examples from its effect in this NPR interview response:

I think that's a really, really interesting question. And the honest answer is that at the moment we just really don't know.

This is a polite and engaged answer, which gives a very different impression from a similar answer that doesn't mention the interest of the question, say:

I don't know, and neither does anyone else.

On the other hand, it would have been on the edge of rudeness for the speaker to have expressed interest by starting an answer with something like "I find it interesting that you asked that question."

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 17, 2007 07:25 AM