Don’t “Hmm…” Me!

Hate is not too strong a word to describe how I feel about “hmm.” You know “hmm…” It’s the reply you get when something breaks down, the conventional solution doesn’t work, and the person to whom you go for help answers with “hmm…,” thereby casting doubt not upon the system but you as a valuable member of society. “Hmm” implies that you did something wrong, used the product or service in a deficient manner, or somehow transgressed the bounds of common decency, which today means you are an inefficient troglodyte.

I know what you’re thinking. This guy must spend a lot of time online with cloud-based “solutions,” or else he needs a vacation. You’re right on both counts, although I still have enough self control not to launch into an harangue about that linguistic and human indignity known as “Human Resources.” I’ve read Aristotle on slavery, and I don’t want to be anybody’s resource. Neither should you. But that’s best left for another post. I like, “Is There No Recourse for Human Resource?” It’s catchy.

Admittedly, I spend a lot of time figuring out how cloud-based applications work in areas such as event registration, accounting, project management, writing, marketing, and communication. Each platform has its own way of proceeding (as the Jesuits say), its own protocols (see Abracadabra), and its own logic. Collectively, the platforms and the increasingly advanced ways they are applied form a kind of machine logic, at least from the user’s perspective. Machine logic, as you might expect, is geared for machines, not human beings. Don’t let anyone in a lab coat convince you otherwise. What’s the difference between machines and humans beyond the obvious? Machines are efficient. Humans are creative, reflecting the imago Dei or creative dimension of God.

I take hmm as a direct assault on that creative dimension even though fellow human beings are the ones using it. However, I have had automated chat support shoot me a “hmm,” which was enough to send me into a fit not unlike those gifs in which the cubicle guy shoves his monitor to the floor in a rage. Hmm is highly judgmental, based on how obedient you are in following the instructions (or not). On a more insidious level, it is an evaluation and critique of the degree to which you enter into and absorb machine logic. Or, rather, how deeply it absorbs you à la the Borg.

I say insidious, because I recognize that hmm reflects a positive approach to technical support and customer relations. Perhaps the people who use it are also responsible for creating Chief Happiness Officers and Happiness Engineers. By the way, what is a happiness engineer? I don’t doubt that this is a genuine attempt to be customer-centric, but the term is patently absurd and gives the impression that happiness can be engineered. We’re dangerously close to soma pills, people (see Welcome to Narco World). This reminds me of those dental practices that market themselves with words like gentle, kind, supportive, and loving. In reality, the last thing I want is a loving dentist. Competence would be nice. I ‘d rather keep the positive psychology crowd out of my mouth.

I get hmm’ed in emails, too, where it is now common practice. It happened to me three times this week. But, in addition to being judgmental, it establishes an adversarial relationship between hmm’er and hmm’ed. The former is an expert, the latter a hapless consumer (maybe we need haplessness engineers). This is similar to the agency problem in business in which a conflict of interest develops among stakeholders. For instance, you have to rely on the expertise of a plumber or car mechanic and assume they have your best interest in mind. But a power imbalance emerges between you because of their expertise even though you’re the one paying. The discrepancy between hmm’er and hmm’ed may not result in a loss of value or price, but it can affect perceived expertise, and perception is incredibly important in an organization.

Of course, all of this could just be me making much ado about nothing, which is one of my hobbies, that and improving things till they don’t work. But give me the benefit of the doubt here. I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest obstacles to organizational and individual health is language. Jargon doesn’t help, not even when you add a whole lot of engineers, especially then. It just makes you feel hmm’ed in.

Image credits: feature by Jonathan Cosens Photography; middle man by [ik] @invadingkingdom; gorilla by Joshua J. Cotten. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” 


  1. Aye, Robert! I enjoyed this post. I especially enjoyed it because the issue and issues you addressed felt more manageable for me, at least in these days. Not less important because the response you speak of can be a metaphor for so much.
    The “hmm” seems like something bite size that I can handle thinking about:). At least a bit less intense than war and peace, defiant versus defensive, life and death, pain and absence of pain…
    Your post offered me an opportunity to consider my own uses of “hmm,” always in face to face conversation, often when I am listening intensely to others.
    I concluded that my “hmm” is often a lazy response or an alternative to saying that I required more time to respond, or that I really didn’t have a good response, or any response, or that I was too tired to process more at that time.
    Recently, a person told me that he couldn’t process more information, and he simply left. Two things caught my attention: one, admiration for this person’s honesty, and two, a recognition that I, myself, had slipped into automatic, as I provided information due to my own fatigue.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for this. I like your friend’s approach. I also limit phone calls. Otherwise, some people’ll go on and on and I don’t like the phone. Give me your information and let’s move on. Also, is there a point…? There are some situations where there’s just no room for me, anyway. So I let the droners drone on…I feel a post coming on about “The Droners.” It’s got nothing to do with those flying things.

  2. Hmmm’ed in. Brilliant. A “hmmmm” usually elicits a “What the F does that mean?” from Yours truly. Also, an equivalent in my former industry of film production, a tech propellor head would look at a video interface (on set or in editorial) and spout a stress-laden “That’s odd . . . ” Guess that’s nerd equivalent of “hmmm?” No matter, I would, of course, ask “What’s odd?” Never got a straight answer in 35 years. Let me know if you ever get a clear follow up to “hmmm.”

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