The use of the word “so” to begin answers to questions has gotten out of control. It began in earnest among researchers and other academic types, and it seems to have spread to many areas. There was a story about it on Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” from yesterday, and it made me happy to discover that others are annoyed by it.
On “Le Show,” Harry read a response from someone at NPR who speculated that “so” was a new form of “um.” This implied that it was actually preferable, since “so” is at least a word. On my reading, however, this explanation is incorrect. “So” is actually much more than a placeholder, and it is actually much more a strike against those who use it.
“So,” on my analysis, is often actually used as a way to wrest slightly morel social leverage, or “hand,” than one usually has in a certain point in conversations. Let me explain why.
The expectation in many conversations, but especially in interviews, is that if one is asked a question or asked for an explanation, when the respondent next speaks s/he is answering the interlocutor’s question. By contrast, often those who begin an answer with “so” have used the word to begin a lecture. They implicitly say something like the following:
“I am now using the occasion of your asking me a question to begin talking about things that I think need to be said. Your question has basically given me the opportunity to talk about what I want to talk about. If I hereby satisfy your desire for an answer, that is incidental what is now happening here. I have now taken the stage.”
In other words, what is so annoying about “so” users is their audacity. They have essentially subverted a subtle aspect of polite conversations, especially when it comes to interviews. They thereby reveal themselves to fall more in categories like rude, presumptuous, arrogant, narcissistic, egotistical, etc. It won’t seem like a big deal to many people that they do so. But not everyone is tone deaf to such things.