"I love this guy!"

Better Half got back (on) Tuesday after eight days in New York. He had a great time promoting his work at an English teachers' conference and enjoyed working with his US distributors, except for one thing that niggled. He'd be chatting with the American folk, cracking jokes as he is apt to do, and someone would exclaim (no doubt indicating him with a nod or a pointing gesture) to the others in the group, "I love this guy!" or "Don't you just love this guy?" or some variation on this. (He should be used to this by now—some of my family members are guilty of the same behavio(u)r.)

Now, BH, it must be said, usually enjoys the attention that he gets for being English when in America. In fact, his main complaint about the country on one of our visits last year was that due to the favo(u)rable exchange rate, New York was crawling with Brits, and he was no longer special. So, one might think that he'd love people exclaiming their love for him, but he found it rather off-putting—and so would I. No doubt, the people who say it would think that they're being complimentary. So, what's behind this phrase/behavio(u)r (which I can't say I've ever experienced in the UK)?

Why some people would find it off-putting, or even rude, to be the topic of such an exclamation is easily explained. There you are, getting along with people, feeling like you're making headway in being accepted as part of the gang. Then you say something funny, and instead of laughter, compliments, or inclusive back-slapping, someone starts talking about you in the third person. You stop being you or Lester (or whatever your name is) and start being this guy. It's distancing. It makes you feel like a performing seal and not a person taking part in the conversation. And what do you say after someone says I love this guy? You haven't been addressed, so it has essentially ended your turn at talking. You're put in an awkward position.

So, why it makes people uncomfortable—easily explained. Why do people say it? It seems to say "Look at me! I'm sophisticated and/or clever enough to appreciate this person's humo(u)r!" In other words, it seems a rather self-cent(e)red thing to say. So, part of me is tempted to say that one hears expressions like this more in the US than the UK because the US is a more individualistic society, with more emphasis on the 'me' in conversation. And I'm sure that's part of it. Another part, I think, is the relative insularity of mainstream American life—if you don't interact with a lot of people from other cultures (as equals) on a regular basis, perhaps you don't know what to do when they make a slightly off-colo(u)r comment. (BH does have a tendency to like to shock middle Americans with his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.) Folded into this is some Americans' insecurity around British folk, whom they consider particularly funny, well-spoken (recall AVIC) and therefore possibly more intelligent than themselves. So, perhaps in such a situation, it's more natural for people to express their appreciation in a distanced way (this guy!) rather than a personal way (you're hilarious!) or a joining-in way (carrying on the joke).

Those are my working hypotheses, at least. (Or since it's a bit of this, a bit of that, maybe it's only one complicated hypothesis.) I'm not sure how much they're worth (it's been a long and tiring week—not a good time for self-critique!), but at least I can offer the public service of pointing out to I-love-this-guy-sayers that there are more effective ways of making people feel loved.

BTW, one more notch in the Canadian count bedpost this weekend—courtesy of a very nice (well, not nice enough to let me beat him) Scrabble player from the Wirral. The Canadian count has slowed down of late (we're just up to 11 now)—maybe I'm not meeting enough new people, or maybe I'm volunteering information about my childhood home too early in conversations, or maybe I'm being accepted as British now that I'm a citizen (HA HA HA—tell us another one, Lynne!).


  1. My first impression is that it is a movie quote, originally. Found it in True Romance (1993) on the IMDB. I also have the impression that it is a mafia-ism, New Jersey/Sicilian influence. Sopranos? I've never heard it in real life, but I'm sure I've heard it in more than a few TV shows and movies. Spouse has the same impression.

  2. Earliest Google books attestation is 1961:

    "I love this guy," Harry Emerson said. "No matter what he says, he sounds like
    he's peddling a 1948 Nash."

    - The Heartless Light, Gerald Green

    Apparently, it's "a so-so novel about press irresponsibility in a kidnapping".

    Another Google books quote:

    what Douglas Coupland called ‘telethonese’—unctuous phrases like ‘you’re beautiful,’ ‘I love this guy,’ ‘what a nut,’ etc.

  3. Lynne, congratulations on a good result this weekend, but I should point out that the very nice player to whom you refer, although now resident on the Wirral, is actually from Bradford, Yorkshire. At least by categori{z/s}ing you as Canadian, he got the right continent, which is unusually accurate for Len. I love that guy!

  4. That depends upon what one means by 'from', Straw. (He did mention his Yorkshire roots, but would you have been able to identify him so readily if I'd said 'a Yorkshireman'?)

    On the other comments, it's unlikely that this started out as a quotation from a film/movie or book. Most writers are trying to represent real-life dialogue and do so. There's the famous example of people assuming that post-sentential "NOT!" comes from the film/movie Wayne's World when in fact it goes back to at least 1860. (New Scientist did a little piece on this phenomenon a couple of weeks ago, referring to Arnold Zwicky's Language Log posts that dub this the Recency Effect.)

  5. "I love this guy" sounds very New Yawkish to this Midwesterner, but there was a beer ad a few years ago that played on the phrase "I love you, man!" I can't find it on YouTube, but it was a pretty funny concept.

    In any case, there may be some sort of "critical mass" that was reached with this ad and the phrase "I love this guy!" And that was a few years ago, so "I love you, man!" is passe again, though good for a faint smile and eye-roll in some cases.

    I think there's something here, subtextually, about men admitting they like (or love) each other and playing it off as a joke, as over-the-top humor. It's better than slugging someone in the arm to show affection anyway!!

  6. "I love this guy" isn't just directed at "foreigners." It is directed at any other man.

    It is definitely a distancing mechanism. But it is not due to a lack of familiarity, or anything like that.
    To be blunt, it is a way to not sound gay.

    In many circles, be they directly homophobic or of the "not that there's anything wrong with that" vein. Men often feel that any appreciation shown to another man outside of a "good job" and a firm handshake (perhaps a back slap) is bordering on Homosexual.

    So to an average guy who does not want to come across as gay, he does not say "I love you" or "I love John" but "I love this guy!"

    It distances, while still showing appreciation. Therefore it falls into the "acceptable means of showing appreciation without sounding gay." parameters.
    I know that it is sad and a little backward, but it is really true.

  7. Is it any worse than being told "You are a truly Renaissance man"?

  8. Some of you are erroneously assuming that it's men saying "I love this guy!" In both cases (business and family) it was women saying it to BH.

    Anonymous, I didn't mean to say that it's only directed at foreigners (though I could see why anyone would think that I was trying to say that). I was trying to explain why it's said particularly in the contexts in which BH has been the object of it. But since it has the distancing effect, I think that it is particularly 'easy' to say it to foreigners, just because it's easier to feel distant from them--at least in a lot of cases. I can also imagine it in work situations...there have got to be some uses of it in the American version of The Office, mustn't there? (Maybe even in the British version?)

  9. Lynne, my impression has always been that it's definitely a distancing phrase, but one used by someone who feels a sense of superiority, and attempting an inter-level bonhomie of a sort. That is, the one using it is often trying to impress him/herself as "one of the gang" when this is distinctly not the case. I've only known somewhat arrogant people to use it in social situations.

    Your mileage may vary!

  10. "Your mileage may vary!" -- now that's an Americanism (though a minority of Americans would write "milage") I never came across till the internet came along. Along with "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear".

  11. (AmE) Based on my experience, I'll suggest that the meaning depends on the gender. I am assuming a heterosexual orientation of the speaker only because I've never heard a person I knew to be gay ever say it.
    A woman saying it is suggesting, "Hey, this is the kind of guy more guys should be like!" A man saying it might be saying the same thing but in that slightly homophobic way your other readers have suggested.

  12. It does sound odd at first to a non-American, and it can sometimes sound sarcastic(but I've only ever thought that with a male speaker, not a female speaker). I don't think it is distancing from the referent so much as establishing rapport with other listeners, confirming and emphasizing that the speaker understands and enjoys interacting with the person they profess to like so much ("love" essentially means "like" in the contexts I've heard it).

  13. I have to confess that I have actually used this phrase. I've never thought of it as a 'distancing' tactic, although i can see how it is perceived as such. I can also see how it may have initially been used by straight men to address their non-romantic feelings towards other straight men since in general, I only use this phrase in social situations as a means to introduce one acquaintance to other acquaintances and am probably using the phrase to show non-romantic appreciation of someone.

    But in general i think the phrase 'this guy' may be a NY metro area thing, as I grew up hearing phrases like 'Who does this guy think he is?' instead of 'Who does he think he is?'and 'What's this guy doing?' instead of "What is he doing?" Of course, we all knew it was poor English, but somehow it worked in Jersey...

    There, now you can all despise me for being an east-coaster who actually uses phrases from TV shows.

  14. Actually, I heard a paper about the distancing effect of 'this' and 'that' personal references at the International Pragmatics Association Conference this summer, I just recalled. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have been translated into a published work yet. The citation is:

    Stockill, C. and Kitzinger, C. (2007) Use of Alternative (Non-) Recognitionals: A Marked Practice to Display Social Distance. Conference paper presented at the 10th International Pragmatics Association Conference, Sweden, July 2007

    Here's a relevant bit from the abstract:

    "The present work uses Conversation Analysis to examine cases where third parties are referred to using classically nonrecognitional
    terms (eg this guy) when names are available to both speaker and recipient.
    The cases are taken from mundane interaction between telephone conversationalists and in all examples the third party referent(s) have been named unproblematically in the interaction before the point at which the non-recognitional term is
    produced. For example, in one call between two friends, the third party referent is Mark and is named as such in most
    places in the interaction. However, in the target utterance he is notably referred to as this guy.
    What actions are constituted by using a marked non-recognitional term? One possibility is that speakers are managing
    what Stivers calls domains of responsibility. That is, person references are one way in which social networks and their
    associated obligations are displayed and speakers may draw on them to highlight or suppress particular connections to
    others. For example in the call between the two friends cited above, Mark is the recipients boyfriend; a hetero-romantic
    partnership that carries a set of normative obligations. However, the speakers use of this guy at what is for her a critical
    point in the interaction, effectively suppresses these features of the recipients relationship with Mark by placing him at a social distance from her. Just how and why this is done is built analytically in the paper."

    Now, this is different from my example, of course, since the 'this guy' is actually present in the 'I love this guy' contexts I described, and in their example he's not. But in both cases it's been noted as having a distancing effect.

  15. I find the phrase really annoying as well, but less because of the distancing than for the implication that you're performing for their amusement.

  16. But that's what I mean by 'distancing' in this case, GY. It's a way of saying that you're not in the conversation together, but have different status, with one being more of an outsider (the performer).

  17. Lynne (and Lynne's BH), I'm afraid the time for feeling special in New York has long gone... There are Brits all over the shop now. It's all part of our master plan - we won't rest until there's a chippy and a Marks & Spencer in Tines Square!

  18. Long article in today's Irish Times about the many Irish planning since January for their Christmas shopping trips to New York, and their fear of being caught by Customs at Dublin or Shannon Airport for unpaid tax (i.e. smuggling).

  19. Sounds kinda patronising..

  20. "I love this guy" or "Don't you just love this guy" is a very New Jersey/New York thing to say. When I see it in print I can even hear my cousins using the phrase, putting emphasis on the Joisey accent. May have become more common after the success of the Sopranos, as I'm now hearing it from friends who have never been to New Jersey.

    I'm New Jersey born (south Jersey, Cape May) but raised upstate New York. Or as my true Jersey cousins say, "Almost Canadian".

  21. I think I've used this kind of phrase before - "Don't you love this guy?!?" - as a way to include the whole group in appreciation of the humor. It's a way to include people who might not feel part of the conversation by including them in the praise of it. It's a way to show group enthusiasm (rather than individual enthusiasm) for the speaker.

  22. "I love this guy" is a probably a variant of a popular beer ad promoted during the Superbowl a few years ago("I love you, man.) but in New Jersey/New York we are more accustomed to saying "guy" than "man" (southerners say "y'all;" we say "you guys.")

    The "I love this guy" is said to emphasize that "this person is really amusing and fun to be with; he should be included in our little group," a sign of approval, and might also be accompanied with a back slap or shoulder squeeze, depending on how touchy-feely the speaker is.

    The "don't you just LOVE this guy?" is a rhetorical question; the "you" meaning all the other members in the little group, the "guy" being the fun-to-be-with person...perhaps what the British mean by "mate?".

    Either way, the phrase is not meant to be patronizing or exclusionary; quite the opposite, in fact.

    I regularly say a variant of this with my children, as in "I LOVE this kid!" even if I'm addressing him directly. When I say this, I mean to convey that "You are fun to be with! I approve of you!!!"

  23. BrE. How suddenly things can change. Today, the term “social distancing” has a new and quite different meaning. It will be interesting to re-revisit this post in another ten years or so.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)