“I Hear You”

I’ve noticed there’s a new phrase that, seemingly overnight, has become a staple in virtually every conversation, from simple chit-chat to multi-party business videoconferences.

The phrase is “I hear you.” It is used when one participant in a conversation is responding to an observation or argument that another party to the conversation has just made. The responses now often begin with “I hear you.” The responder might then proceed to agree and raise an additional point or gloss on what was just said, or amplify the point in some way, or follow “I hear you” with “but” and some form of disagreement. But the responder wants to make sure that the first speaker knows that his or her statements has been understood and assimilated, and they aren’t just people talking across each other. The “I hear you” statement is a way to get that point across. (And in a world of sometimes glitchy and frozen video connections, “I hear you” may also signal that you’re not experiencing technical difficulties, too.)

I’ve been interested in the spread of “I hear you,” and I wonder if linguists are, even now, tracing the use of the phrase back to its roots. I think the use of the phrase is a way of showing verbal respect and acknowledgement, even if the phrase might be followed by disagreement. It’s a form of polite, sensitive behavior that is an outgrowth of the desire to make sure that everyone is being heard and their views are being respected. I wonder if “I hear you” might soon become a basic building block of manners in the modern world, as common as “please” and “thank you.”