thought-stopping cliché

When we are stumped by a challenge, or find ourselves with a dilemma for which we have no immediate explanation or answer, we tend to resort to commonly-used platitudes that allow us to set the problem aside. Handy though this is – for it helps ease the discomfort of struggling with an issue – there is a more sinister side-effect of these ‘thought-stopping clichés’.

In my work on communication a couple of decades ago, I spotted what I came to think of as ‘thought-stopping clichés’. These are the sort of things we say when we can’t be bothered to think a problem through and do something about it.

These days, “It is what it is” is a common example, but back then, when dealing with workplace issues, I had been struck by how often “a clash of personalities” was used simultaneously to justify the inability of two people to work together harmoniously, and to end the search for a solution.

It was quite a bit later that I discovered my keen observation and naming this linguistic phenomenon was not as original as I’d thought. It had already been coined in 1961 as the “thought-terminating cliché”, by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

These are the idioms and aphorisms that we trot out innocently when faced with an ongoing problem or conundrum that seems to defy a solution. Politicians love them, and they are an essential part of the organisational lexicon of business. A taster provides “Don’t overthink it”, “That’s how things are done here”, and, “Let’s agree to disagree”.

Thought-stopping clishés are just the tip of a very large iceberg that effectively freezes further thought and debate in any number of situations.

Look around you and you’ll spot these everywhere, from social media memes to political headlines. Thought-stopping clichés pepper our everyday experience as a convenient shorthand, but with a hidden peril. In the words of Guardian journalist Amanda Montell, they are “catchy platitudes aimed at shutting down or bypassing independent thinking and questioning”.

A definition

Thought-terminating clichés are a powerful tool used to halt discussion and suppress critical thinking. These are brief, often well-worn statements designed to end a conversation by presenting an idea as self-evident or beyond dispute. Part of their power is in their familiarity; repeated often enough, any statement can become a kind of ‘truth’. By invoking these clichés, individuals and systems can sidestep complex issues, avoid scrutiny, and stifle dissent.

Political arena

In the realm of politics, thought-terminating clichés are frequently used to manipulate public perception and control the narrative. Politicians and leaders might use phrases like “It’s always been this way” or “We’re doing it for your own good”to dismiss concerns and maintain the status quo.

Such statements effectively cut off debate, as they imply that further discussion is unnecessary or even futile. By presenting their policies and actions as naturally correct or inevitable, people in power can avoid addressing legitimate questions and criticisms.

The dark side

This is sinister enough in itself, but consider too that the people who trot out these thought-stopping clichés are, as often as not, unaware that it is also stopping them from looking any further for a solution or a useful idea. To have a politician say, in effect, “We understand that this is a problem but we are powerless to discuss it further”, surely flies in the face of what politics should be about.

At work too

In the workplace, thought-terminating clichés are often used by management to quash employee concerns and maintain authority. Statements like “That’s just company policy” or “We have to follow orders” are used to discourage questioning and encourage compliance. These clichés create an environment where employees feel powerless to challenge decisions, thereby preserving hierarchical structures and preventing meaningful dialogue about workplace practices.

In what could be described as succumbing to groupthink, unsuspecting employees are numbed into alignment, rather than applying their collective ingenuity to resolving an issue, solving a problem, or finding a new way round an old problem. 

Social blocks

Beyond the spheres of politics and work, thought-terminating clichés permeate our daily social interactions. Phrases like “It is what it is” or “Everything happens for a reason” are commonly used to dismiss others’ feelings or experiences. These clichés can be particularly harmful in personal relationships, where they can invalidate emotions and shut down conversations that might otherwise lead to deeper understanding and resolution. By relying on these simplistic responses, even the most emotionally intelligent person avoids engaging with complex or uncomfortable topics, perpetuating a cycle of superficial communication.

As parents

In parenting, “The terrible twos” or “Boys will be boys” let us off the hook. As ‘explanations’ for the behaviour of our adored little ones, we never have to question whether our parenting skills are somehow falling short, or that the child might be struggling in some way.. This is not to say that there might be a phase during a child’s development (around two years) where some typically become a bit more difficult to manage, or that boys don’t manifest stereotypical behaviour.

But, whether or not these explanations are justified, should not automatically make any response on the part of the parents either unnecessary or futile. We unwittingly fall into the trap of using these well-worn thought-stopping clichés as explanations and as justification for no further thought or action.

Cultural trends

The pervasive use of thought-terminating clichés reflects a broader cultural tendency to favour convenience and simplicity over depth and critical engagement. In an era where quick soundbites and slogans dominate discourse, these clichés offer a way to bypass the effort required for nuanced thinking and meaningful dialogue.

Recognising and challenging these clichés is crucial for fostering a more thoughtful and open society. By refusing to accept these simplistic thought-stoppers, we can encourage deeper conversations, promote critical thinking, and create spaces where genuine dialogue and understanding can flourish.

Even if we accept the clichés, for example, “That’s just how it is”, or “That’s how the world works” at a personal level, it should at least understand that their convenience comes at a cost. Understanding the nature of thought-stopping clichés should at least mean that we can free up our thinking, contribute more authentically, and strive to make a difference.

Image: Courtesy of Freepik

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.