Another cardboard box arrived. I slide out an IKEA table – a black plank tightly wrapped in plastic, unassembled, containing a 3’ x 3’ top beside four black legs. $14.99, arrived in 48 hours. Genius!
This plank is a modern marvel.
Home designers stripped away everything non-essential to a table, and chose, likely after hundreds of studies, the most inoffensive shade of black. Packaging engineers must have calculated that shortening the table legs by ½ inch will save 20% on the cost. Chemists combined adhesives, formaldehyde, and veneers so that it resembles wood – engineered to mimic the life of a dead tree. After the first table was printed, the CEO of IKEA greeted it at the end of the assembly line and named it LACK – as if that would give it life.
But I don’t care if Pope Francis baptizes the table and it prances around like a Great Dane… this table is lifeless.
As David Perell writes in the Microwave Economy, “When you strip away too much of the non-essential, you lose the kind of craftsmanship that endows an object with soul and makes the world feel alive.”
A year ago, I moved into this apartment with a single Osprey backpack and 1,000 sq ft of white space. A blank apartment. A canvas. I wondered what it would be like to build my own furniture. I even googled lumber at one point; I felt beckoned to go into the hills and fell a tree myself, but the closest source I found was a local lumberyard in Austin. I would put on a checkered flannel, smoke a cigarette, and build a table board by board, paint it, glue it, and on and on.
But instead, my apartment is filled with cheap furniture. It mimics the minimal templates designed by a Swedish man whose favorite color is blue. Ready-made, mainstream, modular junk.
I’ve been snared by the Microwave Economy, a trap of convenience. As David writes, “We’ve overwhelmingly used our wealth to make the world cheaper instead of more beautiful, more functional instead of more meaningful.”
The modern impulse for instant, cheap, functional things has infiltrated society. I see it in microwave meals, twelve million different products on Amazon, modern apartment complexes built to attract the masses of people who say “good enough,” car maintenance, plastic containers with orange slices at the grocery store (since peeling is for apes), digital greeting cards, thank you Facebook messages — and worst of all, I see writers plagued with cliches and other ready-made phrases.
Even if my apartment is out of a Swedish magazine, I promise you, my dear reader, I will resist this impulse in my writing.
It’s becoming common to settle for generic language, imprecise words, and stale imagery. We can trace the origin of ‘ready-made language’ back to 1946, in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
In the 40s, an author approached Orwell and handed him an essay he wrote on the war in Germany. The author said he felt impelled to write it, as if he had a life changing experience and a muse spoke through him. Here’s the first line Orwell read,
“[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.”
These phrases are ready-made, as if they were pre-packaged in a cardboard box. ‘Laying the foundations’ is stale imagery. ‘Nationalistic reaction’, what the hell does that mean? Most of this sounds parroted from a politician. Rather than hearing a singular voice, I hear a journalist who’s name I do not know. Orwell says:
“You see, [the author] ‘feels impelled’ to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.”
Ready-made phrases require little effort. They represent convenience at the cost of craftsmanship that endows an essay with soul. I could find these soulless words on scaffolding in a cold warehouse at IKEA — aisle 18, bin 38. These are IKEA Words.
IKEA Words are efficient, modular, and mainstream. Sometimes I order jargon or conceptual language, like “the deprecated products are phased out”. So often I order cliches like “Tomorrow is another day” or idioms like “tip of the tongue” or euphemisms like “he broke wind”. And unless I edit them, they furnish the page and cheapen my digital home.
IKEA Words strip away personality from my writing by:
- Reducing my process down to an assembly line
- Summarizing my emotions into cliched phrases
- Abstracting my opinions into conceptual statements
They strip away the soul of a writer.
But even though I’m aware of IKEA words, I find myself using them all the time. They’re convenient. They’re top of mind. What draws me to IKEA Words? How do they strip personality from my writing, and how can I fix my bad habits?
Efficiency strips away our voice.
At the moment of writing this sentence, this page is blank, this essay is overdue, and my writing coach is texting me about the deadline. I don’t have time to be creative and play with words. In the next hour I need to furnish the page with thousands of words. Shit. So help me IKEA.
IKEA Words help me get a blurry first draft out. It’s efficient. $0.00, they ship within seconds. Genius! And with content calendars, they’re required.
An hour from now, I’ll skim through the essay as quickly as I pass by an IKEA showcase bedroom. The words are "good-enough." It’s functional, the ideas ready to share. I’ll paste into Grammarly, accept dozens of suggestions, publish, and scream to the world, I feel impelled to educate you on this!
I feel accomplished, but I’m deceiving myself. In reality, all I’ve done is twist together prefabricated phrases.
There’s a cognitive basis called the IKEA Effect, which says consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. When I twist four legs into a table, it feels like I poured blood, sweat, and tears into it, all because an Allen Wrench left some grime on my fingers.
Assembling IKEA furniture or words gives you the illusion of being a craftsman, without the labor that scars your hands forever.
Although my first draft feels original to me – I’m biased since I created it. The Microwave Economy also alludes to this, “If you search their website for 6 foot x 8 foot high pile rugs, you’ll see 31 options. At first, their selection feels abundant. But then you remember that IKEA earns more than $45 billion in revenue per year, which means that there are tens of thousands of other people with the same rug you bought because it ‘expressed your individuality.’ So by trying to be different, we end up becoming the same.”
Quickly written essays lack voice because tens of thousands of others screamed to the world in the exact same tone. A nameless reporter. When I write to the world with IKEA Words, I say nothing new.
Orwell’s solution is to slow down, wait for an image to arise, and then put it into words. David describes this mindstate as, “Slow… deliberate… contemplative. A chance to withdraw from the Hydra of digital life — to-do lists, Twitter feeds, read-it-later apps, group chats, Instagram DMs [...]. Distanced from social demands, you can simply follow the wishes of your heart.”
Instead of rushing towards completion, you can learn to love the craft, like an old man who owns a Dodge truck from the 80s. Every 500 miles the truck breaks down. Each time it’s a chance to pause, to slide underneath its cab, and to tinker with its engine. A rag coated in decades of grease hangs from his back pocket.
The old man is in a dialogue with his truck. There’s no tomfoolery. No deceit. A genuine relationship.
When I edited this draft, initially polluted with IKEA Words, I slid under it and opened a dialogue with it. What does this mean? What memories does that bring up? What does this look like? In that conversation, the writing becomes personal, playful, and full of wonder.
We need to rebel against the voice in our head that yells, PUNISH THE PAUSE! I dare you, take a week to write a first draft. Take a month to edit it, identifying IKEA Words and wondering about them. Rebel! Rediscover the joy of the writing process.
Modularity strips away our emotions.
A friend emailed me a picture of a pack of elephants napping together, and I instantly replied, “this warms my heart”. Although this is cliche (and a prepackaged phrase from IKEA) – it approximated my feelings towards the picture – in seconds!
Meanwhile my brother texted me a picture of his seedling of a baby, and I replied, “this warms my heart.” Too, this phrase is convenient for when republicans and democrats shake hands over NASA's Ingenuity helicopter. And on and on – all in seconds!
If you type “This warms m,” in Gmail, artificial intelligence will auto-complete “my heart.” Hit tab and autofill your emotions.
IKEA Words that are cliches, idioms, and euphemisms are modular emotions. They are relatable and capture some common, typical feeling. I pluck a feeling from a bin and I fit it in. In each case, I don’t get bogged down wondering about the nuances of what I feel. I insert the modular emotion and move on with my life.
The problem with modular emotions is that they lack the context that makes each situation unique. Even though the emotions around cuddling elephants, a newborn, and bi-partisan support are very different, we use the same words to describe them.
Modular emotion gives the illusion of emotion, without needing to be vulnerable.
“That was a cheap shot” signals being hurt without being exposed. I don’t know what is painful about it, unless you say, “Ouch. That feels dirty when you joke about my wife's anxiety.” Now, you’re bare to the world.
‘Cheap shot’ has all the non-essential details stripped away. It captures the essence of the emotion. But those missing details endow our emotions with a soul that makes them feel alive.
Mental pictures can be uncomfortable, Orwell said.
George Carlin has a great standup bit about how Euphemisms mask our discomfort. He talks about how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the first world war originally was called Shell Shock. “Simple, honest, direct language. Over time, the same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. [...] The phrase is completely sterile, there's no humanity left in it.” [...] “The pain is completely covered by jargon now.”
As a result, we act like robots running auto-complete scripts, sharing modular emotions back and forth without having a real impact. I text my mother countless cliches. In seconds. And if I paused and sat with that, it would break my fucking heart. But I don’t. I hit tab.
Maybe we can’t stop our mind from defaulting to cliches, but we can learn to recognize when we write them. Once we catch ourselves, we can twist, alter, modify, and revive old cliches.
I found a wonky sub-culture of IKEA: IKEA hackers. People buy IKEA furniture, because it’s minimal and multi-functional, and they transform it into something new. Someone bought a closet and converted it into a Murphy bed. Another person converted a coffee table into a hidden cat litter box. Each consumer adds their own creativity.
They modulate furniture and it becomes alive! What if we can make cliches our own by adding details?
Since our culture is so primed to hear a cliche like “think outside the box,” you can say “think outside the cabinet,” and people will know what you mean.
Instead of scrapping “this warms my heart,” I can pluck images from the cliche and re-purpose them:
- Elephants: “Warm bodies cuddling, oh I miss that feeling.”
- Brother’s baby: “Oh my, his little heart feels so big.”
- Political hand shaking: “God, thank you for encouraging us towards the stars.”
Modular emotions already have great imagery. (It’s just often dead, from a different time and place.) But because we say them so quickly, we hardly recognize them on the page. Blind as a hat.
It’s our job as writers to wake up! Pay attention, identify cliches on the page, and make them our own.
Mainstream strips away our opinions.
IKEA’s main job is to people-please the masses. The furniture is minimal, has an ability to adapt to different homes, and it never offends.
Niche furniture has a different job. There’s a store in Austin called Uncommon Objects. Inside you’ll find skulls, five foot tall buddha statues, and may even find a coffee table with wooden goose engravings. If you buy something there, some of your house guests will hate it, like a 4 foot tall Coyote, standing erect in women’s clothing. Some will love it. It puts a stake in the ground that will disturb some people and enliven others. Furniture with a personality.
This begs the question: do we go the safe route, or do we take a risk?
I’m on the fence… I feel like I’m being impaled by a chain link fence because I can’t make a decision.
I carry this pain as I write this essay. This will be published on Write of Passage’s website. I must appeal to the masses. My plan? I will avoid words that only my superfans know, I’ll muzzle any controversial opinions, and I’ll write objectively, to cover all sides of this issue. In other words, I’ll write a lot of IKEA Words.
IKEA Words that are generalizations, concepts, and jargon construct safe opinions. They state general ideas which you can’t poke holes in. They never offend.
I often see coaches advertise themselves to an amorphous reader or an entire community, “I coach strategies to achieve peak performance.” This captures the essence of what the coach offers. And it is conceptually true and is digestible to the largest set of people. But it doesn’t resonate. I want to know what it would look like to work with him – specifically.
As Jacqueline Woodson says, “The more specific we are the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn't resonate.” By speaking to everyone, we speak to no one.
Vague statements give the illusion of truth, without saying something that resonates.
I used to work with a coach, Lisa Cron, who beat my head with a baton every time I made general statements. So many headaches. Lisa’s rule of the imagination was “the ‘eyes wide shut’ test—if you can’t close your eyes and envision it, it’s not there yet.”
When I began this practice, I tended to “zoom in” to my generalizations by adding a qualifier. “He was sad” becomes “He was sad after his dog ran away”. I can’t see either. However: “In the grass, he twisted Ralph’s broken leash in between his fingers. God I pray, bring him back.” Zoom in so that it becomes personified, like a Coyote wearing a woman’s dress.
Images may offend, like me describing an IKEA hotdog in detail. Here’s the pleasure you get for $1: The hotdog is pale. Bread stale. Skin encasing – likely collagen based and derived from animal hides – is tightly sealed on one end and on the other looks like an uncircumcised wiener. I enjoy every inch of it. And strangely enough, after I finished, I could speak Swedish.
Life is in the details.
I love people who are down to earth. They don’t live in the clouds where abstract ideas and generic language condense and dissipate. Instead they dance around their stake in the ground – talking about the grass between their toes or the bottle of wine they ordered on a recent date. If you offend them, their dance stutters and they look you in the eye to say they’ve been hurt or they disagree. They are loud, clear, and true.
In the same manner, I’m going to claim my part of the internet. That takes courage. Especially when it’s about pale hotdogs.
Your Digital Home
Our website is the digital home for our most precious ideas. How do we want to furnish it?
There’s no escaping the temptation of IKEA. We are naturally drawn towards speed, re-usability, and being liked. Even after we become aware of these forces, our minds are still wired to use IKEA words. We need to be constantly mindful of them.
Or as David concludes, “The pernicious thing about the Microwave Economy is that even after writing this essay, I will still fall prey to it. Knowing about it won’t make me immune to it.”
Be aware of the temptation to fill a blank page and to ship it without reflecting on it. Be aware of the temptation to use emotional modules to express how you feel. Be aware of the temptation to write generalizations in order to not offend.
Instead of rushing – pause, slide underneath your essays and tinker with their words. Instead of taking shortcuts – pay attention, look for opportunities to revive cliches. Instead of safe, conceptual language – personalize, zoom-in until your paragraph comes alive.
Becoming a better writer is less about finding better ideas, and more about unlearning your bad habits around IKEA words. Have patience, look for language to play with, and hold the courage to dance around a stake in the page.
Pause, Pay attention, Personalize.
Another cardboard box arrived. I slide out an IKEA Word tightly wrapped in plastic. $0.00, arrived in seconds. Genius! It's a modern marvel. Grammarly stripped away its voice. Google’s auto-compose guessed my emotion. And it’s guaranteed to steer clear of Cancel Cultural. At the end of the assembly line, the CEO in blue greeted it, and it reads: save your soul.
Thank you —
Michael Dean who coached me as I wrote this essay in the Writing Studio.