What You Need to Understand ...

–Mary Gordon Spence

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If only they would understand.

I’m talking about experts who are called upon daily to enlighten us. From professors to pundits, snake charmers to surgeons—ask them a question, and chances are they reply, “What you need to understand…”

In the olden days (which I figure is any time before 2000) when news interviewers asked questions, experts answered them outright. Here’s the way it might have gone on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” before the turn of the century:

BOB EDWARDS: Tell us how you started writing songs, Mr. Nelson.

WILLIE NELSON: Well, Bob, I sat down in a chair, picked up a pencil and started scribbling on the back of a ketchup-soaked napkin.

If you listen to “Morning Edition” these days, you’re likely to hear this scenario: RENEE MONTAGNE: Doctor Healer, tell us about the breakthrough medical procedure that helps millions of arthritis suffers.

DR. HEALER: First, Renee, what you need to understand is that the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone; the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone…

It’s not only the so-called experts who have perpetuated WYNTU. (I made up that name myself—it’s pronounced WIN-tu.) WYNTU occurs in everyday conversations as people try to convince their friends and colleagues to think as they do.

NOTE: For generations, teenagers have proclaimed that their parents don’t understand them. It’s actually helpful that today’s parents know about WYNTU.

TEENAGER: Mother, I’ve already explained why I drove your new BMW to practice without permission. You just don’t understand me.

MOTHER: What you need to understand, Alyssa, is that you’re grounded for 10 years.

I’ve been researching the WYNTU phenomenon, and although it’s less-than-scientific, I’m standing by my results:

  • “What you need to understand” appears a jillion times more often in speech than in writing. Thank goodness most newspaper and magazine editors—and English teachers—keep a red pen handy.
  • There are three basic explanations for WYNTU.
    1. Some people use WYNTU because they’ve heard it so much it’s become a habit—a bad habit.
    2. Lots of people use WYNTU because they believe the more they explain things, the more others will agree with their point of few.
    3. A whole lot of people, especially those with slightly elevated opinions of themselves, use WYNTU because they think the rest of us are just too dumb to understand straightforward answers.

Since there could be a few folks who are skeptical about my research, I went the extra mile to ensure its validity: I interviewed my neighbor, John Kelso, an Austin American-Statesman (alleged) humor columnist.

MGS: Mr. Kelso, why do people, when asked a question, begin their answers with “what you need to understand?”

JOHN KELSO: Those people just want to make themselves sound educated.

(And then Kelso added the most plausible explanation of all.)

“What you need to understand is that this is a bunch of [expletive deleted]”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mary Gordon Spence writes columns for The Austin American-Statesman and regularly broadcasts on KUT, Austin’s public radio station. Mary Gordon (that’s her double first name) grew up in a small Central Texas town and is known for her storytelling, ukulele playing, wit and wisdom.

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