Why Do Tech Workers Say "So" So Much?

Do you have a just "so" story?

By Scott Budman
|  Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009  |  Updated 1:45 PM EDT
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Why Do Tech Workers Say "So" So Much?

Christian Abraham

So ... I think I'll tweet this.

So ... here's a question: Have you noticed that tech workers start a lot of their sentences with the word, "So...?"

Is it just me?  Because I started to notice this around 1997 or so, when dotcom companies started gaining in stature, importance, and wealth.  Tech veterans, recent hires, even people who left other careers to jump on the tech bandwagon would answer questions starting with the word "so."  As in, "So, what we do is strictly B-to-B," or, "So .. I can't tell you much about our upcoming release, except that it will radically change the way business is done." 

To be fair, it wasn't just dotcom workers.  Some people I knew at chip companies, videogame companies, and others, they would give me the "so," too, but dotcommers, that's where you'd get it the most.  It lasted through the boom, and the bust didn't stop it. 

Today, you'll still hear it.  Ask a question, and get a "So..." to start the response.  I don't get it from people in most other lines of work.  Finance?  Automotive? No "so."  Same with politicians.  I've listened for it, but it's not there.  You don't hear it from clergy, either. It's strictly for tech confessions.

So ... why?  If I had to come up with an answer, it would be this:  Some tech workers will use the "So.." as a way to take a little extra time before they answer your question, to formulate the answer.  I've noticed that sometimes the "so" is delivered quickly, and sometimes it lingers. Like, if it's taking a long time to figure out how to make you understand the answer, you'll get a long "so....."

Try it.  Ask something easy, and you'll get a quick "So ..." directly followed by an answer.  Ask a tough one, though ("How does your product change the game?"  "How will you reach other markets?"  "How will your company actually make money"), and you're in for a pause after your "So ..."  Sometimes a long pause.  That means the person is thinking -- thinking of a way to make this comprehensible to lesser beings.

Now, I'm not taking credit for discovering this.  It couldn't be just me, even back in the '90's, noticing this.  In fact, in 2002, Mark Leibovich, in his excellent book, "The New Imperialists" (Prentice Hall Press) wonders about this as well.  After visiting the offices of Amazon.com to write about founder Jeff Bezos, Leibovich notices "about Bezos and his Amazon team .. that they always seem to start their answers with the word 'So.'" When I read this, I felt vindicated.  Leibovich even offers a possible reason: "The 'so's' imply the instant certainty of their positions."  Yes!  And if they're certain that you won't quite understand that position, you'll get a "So ..." followed by the pause.

Not having the guts to write Mr. Leibovich about his theory, I sat on this awhile, secure in the knowledge that an actual author (and researcher) had come to the same conclusion as I.  The Silicon Valley is, indeed, full of just-"so" stories.  But then, the moment of truth.  Not long ago, while interviewing an engineer at a world-renowned dotcom giant, I heard this behind me, between two employees of the company:

Employee 1:  "Hey.  So, I'm gonna need this space for a meeting in a few minutes."
Employee 2:  "So, I told NBC they could do the interview here.  We'll need about ten."

Employee 1:  "So ... (pause) .. This meeting is important, and we're bringing food.  I really need to set things up."
Employee 2:  "So, this is for the news tonight.  I wasn't told about the meeting."

Employee 1:  "So ... Look, I can't have a news camera here when the guys come."
Employee 2:  "So --"

At this point, I just stopped the interview.  I had to listen.  I was like Howard Carter stumbling across the tomb of King Tut.  Dian Fossey finding gorillas in the mist.  This was proof!  Right there, behind me.  Amazing.  Two tech workers, from the same company, "so"-ing each other.  What a moment.  I even forgot what the engineer and I were talking about.

The tech industry has a long history of speaking its own language.  We're always hearing about how words like "emoticon" and "wiki" find their way into the dictionary.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Ben Zimmer, in the New York Times Magazine, wrote a piece about how, thanks to Twitter (and before it, message boards), the word "fail" has taken on a new life.  Used to be a verb, now a noun.  "So" used to be a conjunction, now a class identifier.  Try it sometime with your friend, the one who would never stop taking about his job, his personal life, his love for movies, whatever.  He gets a job in the tech industry, and every answer begins with "So..."

Just make sure you don't ask a tough question,or you're in for a pause as well.

Got a just "so" story of your own?  Hit Scott on Twitter:  @scottbudman

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