Want me to lose your audience's attention immediately? Then drop the u-bomb.
"Let's unpack this."
This is, like, literally, the most annoying word/phrase in the English language.
It is way worse than vagina, even though I once wrote an entire blog post about why I hate the word vagina -- and believe me, it's a terrible, terrible word.
In Latin, the word "vagina" literally means sheath or scabbard.
It's so bad, it's almost as bad as telling someone they "look tired." Which, as I wrote recently in Unless the Next Words Out of Your Mouth Are Going to Be, "Can I Help ___?" Do NOT Tell Me I "Look Tired," is an extremely rude and stupid thing to say to someone.
And it's definitely worse than the word "moist," which is infamous for having... weird connotations? Few words in English elicit such strong aversions in so many people.
Though, personally, I have no problem with moist. At all. It reminds me of delicious cookies and cakes.
Like, what? Do you want them not to be moist?
Do you like your cakes and cookies to be hard and dry?
Then you're a weirdo.
So what, exactly, is the problem with "unpack"? Why does it make so many people cringe?
Even though two of the last five books I've read (James Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns and Benjamin Bergen's What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves) were about words... I don't entirely know.
What about this stupid use of the word "unpack" evokes pure, unbridled rage?
It could just be associations. Many reasonable people have come to associate "unpack" with insane, regressive social justice warriors, who use the phrase, "Let's unpack this" to explain things like why all men are basically rapists (even if they're not) or why objectivity is oppressive (who cares about expertise, when some 17-year-old has "lived experience") or that there is such a thing as "sexual prejudice" (there isn't -- there is only sexual preference).
Maybe it's because people who use the word "unpack" often use lots of other meaningless jargon, and you can't even argue with them because they're not presenting ideas and content, just long strings of trendy social justice words.
Maybe it's about arrogance. Maybe people who tend to say "unpack" say it because they believe they are so much more enlightened, intelligent, or whatever than you, that they need to "unpack" your own opinions and beliefs for you.
Often, people who want to "unpack" things for you have no respect for your personal choices or autonomy. For example, consider Everyday Feminism's recent post, So You Got Called Out On Social Media By Someone Who's More Marginalized Than You. In it, Jacquie Fuller discusses how, if other people have less oppression than you, your job is to shut up and apologize and agree.
You feel it rising up inside you: The But-But-But.
The diatribe continues (after telling us what TV show to watch -- because "self-care," right? -- and what kind of tea to drink and how to decorate our house and to masturbate):
Call an intersectional white feminist friend who will help you unpack what you’re feeling (I’m here for you!).
"Unpaid emotional labor." That's a funny one. I'll have to save that for later.
In short, people hate the word "unpack" because they associate it with SJWs trying to force their opinions in place of facts.
Which, actually, makes total sense.
See, in one of my psycholinguistics classes, I learned that people say pretty much exactly what they mean, and follow a basic set of rules, or maxims (Grice's Maxims, to be specific) in their communication.
We are as informative as we possibly can, and give as much information as is needed, and no more.
We try to be truthful, and do not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
We try to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as we can in what we say, and we avoid obscurity and ambiguity.
Calling "unpacking" anything but unpacking would violate these maxims.
You can't say, "Let's discuss this," because you're not looking for a discussion.
You can't say, "Let's analyze this," because you don't want to analyze it -- you want to justify and over-justify your opinion.
You can't say, "Let's have a rational back-and-forth," because it's not rational -- it's emotional. And it's not a back-and-forth, either.
And saying, "Sit back and shut up and listen and agree while I talk about my opinion like it's a fact and 'call you out' if you disagree with me," is so darn wordy -- "unpack" conveys the exact same message in only two syllables.
Which is why, typically, when someone wants to unpack anything that's not a suitcase, I feel instinctively wary. I've learned, from my lived experience, that there's no point in trying to engage.
That's not what "unpacking" is about.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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