I ordered a new computer online the other day. The initial information listed a delivery date two weeks from the order day. However, just before the two weeks mark, I received an email indicating that the order was delayed, and it would be shipped soon. Four weeks after the order date the computer had not even been built yet, according to the order status on the website. Then I received an email informing me that the computer has been built and shipped and it will arrive soon. What did the company mean by using the word soon? I found it frustrating to figure out the time frame for receiving my new computer. The dictionary describes soon as without undue time lapse, in a prompt manner. I’m not sure what soon really means when waiting for an item to be shipped to you.
Before the 12th century the English term soon implied immediately or at once. It seems soon was equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon word now. Today the dictionary lists that meaning as obsolete. My guess would be that after hundreds of years of people saying, “I’ll do that soon,” the word lost that understanding and acquired a sense of ‘a short time after now.’
Soon is a vague answer we often use to avoid offering a definite time frame. I’m going to get my credit score on my credit card straightened out soon and solve my credit history. Children frequently use with the word “soon,” when responding to the request to clean up their room. Job candidates are often told during the hiring process that they’ll receive a response soon. What does soon really mean?
When someone says, “We’ll talk soon,” what do they insinuate? Tomorrow? In 10 minutes? If you can see them their body language can sometimes indicate a clue to a time frame. Are they standing with their arms crossed in front of their chest while looking at the floor? Do they lean against a wall and stare blankly into space while chewing on the end of a pen? Physical actions may mean a longer soon, or not at all.
Many people use soon to express a reluctance to accomplish something. “I will do that soon.” The confusion happens when the hearer takes this literally and expects a result in a short time after now. The speaker may perceive soon as a variable timeframe and understand its meaning as not yet. It is not always clear what people mean by soon. It depends on the situation and understanding of who is talking and who is receiving the word.
There are some instances when it’s better to avoid giving people the chance to use the word soon. If you have an appointment with your doctor and want to know when you’ll get your test results, don’t ask, “When will I get my results?” as the answer may well be soon, and that indicates nothing. Instead, ask, “Can you tell me how long I’ll have to wait?” If you’re worried about meeting deadlines don’t say, “I need that soon.” Instead, use phrases like “I need this by Tuesday” or “I need this by noon on Wednesday.”
Requests that include “as soon as possible” (or the acronym ASAP) can come across as rude. In fact, Forbes magazine named emails with ASAP in the subject header among the five rudest. The acronym got its start in 1955 as US Army slang. Which may be why we sometimes associate it with the mental image of a drill sergeant barking orders. ASAP can be a communication shortcut when it’s known that all parties have the same definition, especially for people who work together frequently. If both the requester and the requestee understand that ASAP means “whenever you get around to it,” there’s less chance for misunderstandings. However, ASAP does nothing to help the recipient prioritize. Does your request need to be tended to by the end of the day, the end of the week, or whenever the recipient gets a little spare time? “As soon as possible” doesn’t convey any sort of time frame. When overused, it becomes meaningless. When everything needs to be delivered ASAP, nothing is. In fact, ASAP can signify a lack of planning. If you don’t really know when you need your request attended to, by using “as soon as possible,” you’re leaving it to the discretion of the person who is asked to complete the task.
Perhaps we should stay away from using the word soon or ASAP. Just get specific with a time frame then it will help everyone get on the same page.
John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to firstname.lastname@example.org . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.