Words are weird. Take any word, focus on it, think about how it sounds, looks, how it is spelled, and of course what it means. After a while it starts to dissolve and questions arise: is it really spelled that way? And it looks and sounds kind of corny doesn’t it? Even the meaning becomes slightly obscure, ambiguous. Why haven’t I noticed this before?
I have been thinking about the word “obvious” lately. And sure enough it quickly lost its simplistic meaning and exploded into a world of opportunities and challenges.
It turns out that under the hood there are treasures to be found. What seemed “obvious” at a glance turned out to be brilliant or important when you stopped for a second and reflected.
So here is my defense for the “obvious”, not the word itself, the label, but the stuff you find when you scratch the surface.
The “obvious” is in the eye of the beholder
Before the dissolution of meaning begins, let’s get the benchmark definition from Oxford Dictionaries:
Easily perceived or understood; clear, self-evident, or apparent.
Predictable and lacking in subtlety.
It is “obviously” a word open for interpretation. It is not like “red” or “herring” where it seems likely that we can reach a consensus. Each and every word in the definition oozes subjectivity. “Easily perceived” by who? “Easily understood” by who? You get the idea.
The weird thing is that despite its inherent subjectivity it is used to make something seem more objective. Labelling something as “obvious” relieves it from scrutiny, no need to think about it anymore, it almost becomes a fact. Compare that to something that is “not obvious”, which forces you to think.
How do we know?
So when something seems obvious to us, what does that actually mean?
Well, there are two main options:
It seems “obvious” because we are brilliant! Yay!
If something is truly obvious for us, it could be because we are brilliant and that we immediately recognize its “obviousness”. Or
It seems “obvious” because we are not [brilliant]…
The other person said something truly ground breaking but for us it sounded more like they were “just stating the obvious”. Or even worse, it was just a load of crap but it sounded true enough and we swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. In both cases, the obvious wasn’t that obvious at all.
Can we be 100% sure which one it is?
Of course not! We are only humans, we only know what we know and there is a bunch of biases and social factors that severely obscures our thinking.
Luckily there is a simple way out of the problem, we will come to that shortly.
Between brilliance and ignorance
Let’s switch the roles, that we are saying something that we think is truly ground breaking and the other person responds with that it is “obvious”.
I am stating the obvious all the time. Or so I am told. Well, not all the time, sometimes I just get a blank stare back. I can never be sure, am I just silly or does the other person not “get it”?
But silliness is far from the only reason that we or someone else choose to discard something as “obvious”. Here is an incomplete list of real world examples:
It is obvious because I am way smarter than you!
Powerplay! Whatever you say I have already preemptively thought, I don’t even have to listen.
It is obvious because I don’t have a clue what you are talking about
The confused look in my eyes is just a distraction, let’s move on to something else.
It is obvious because I just don’t want to talk about it
I resist without informing you. Changing my opinions is just not my thang.
It is obvious because I own you, biyatch!
Powerplay again, but no need for intellectual superiority, just go for the nuts! Bam!
It is obvious because I wish I would have come up with that first
Simple solutions feel obvious when said out loud. I will not give you credit for something that is that obvious! The fact that you thought about it and I didn’t doesn’t count!
It is obvious, but…
Whatever you say I will “but” you til the end of time. “You need to change your diet”. Yes, but… “You need to break up with your abusive partner”. Yes, but… “You need to quit crack cocaine”. Yes, but… Ha! You loose!
It is obviously true for anyone else
We are all unique snowflakes! The problem that I have is so complex and uniquely mine that the solution must be equally complex and personal. I refuse that silly, obvious solution that you offer me. I actually feel offended!
Personally I have learned to never accept the “obvious” as an answer. I just repeat my silly statements until I either cut through the fog or realize that I was actually the unlucky one.
The case for the obvious
Why do I care so much about the obvious? Because in many cases it isn’t. Discarding something as obvious is a lost opportunity. The moment something goes from the obscure and becomes truly obvious for us is pure joy and true learning, a Eureka moment!
Labelling something as obvious makes us stop thinking. We assume that we have already understood everything there is to understand about this object/question/person. It is an intellectual and creative dead end.
The “obvious” makes it impossible to notice the finer details, in the same way as the pounding music at a club makes any intellectual exchange impossible. We are left judging something from how it looks on the surface.
The “obvious” is just a starting point!
Regardless if we are the ones that think something is obvious, or that someone thinks that we are “just stating the obvious”, the respons should be the same: ask.
Let’s not assume that we understand.
Very little in life is obvious when you scratch the surface, especially when it comes to human beings. We all have different wiring, experiences and viewpoints. By asking we open up for value on so many levels.
Maybe what the person said was truly brilliant and we did not get it, maybe it actually was obvious but the reasons for saying it or the conclusions they draw from it wasn’t.
And maybe we get a new friend by not coming off as an arrogant asshole 😜.