John Larrysson's Column: Happens To Be

This phrase has a dangerous insulting subtext, which can cause the speaker trouble. It means that something is, but was unexpected. The subtext adds a second meaning. The phrase can be used innocently, for example:

Welcome to our board meeting everybody, today happens to be the beginning of a new fashion season.

Our new TV happens to be a web-browser as well.

This chemical we are using happens to be very poisonous.

In these three examples there is no insulting subtext. The meeting is on the day a new season's clothes start being sold. The TV has modern internet-capable functions. Unfortunately the chemical you need is poisonous; be careful!

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The phrase can also be used to refer to a person, but that is when the dangerous subtext begins.

Mr Chan, our strict CFO, happens to be a grower of prize-winning flowers.

The winner of the kung-fu tournament happens to be a kindergarten teacher.

Mr Chan is a tough, ruthless businessman; but there is no reason he cannot be good with flowers, it just seems unexpected. A kung-fu champion is likely to be an emotionally calm person; however gentleness is just not the impression one gets from a person who can break masonry blocks with her fists. These examples are not too insulting.

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The trouble is that this phrase gets very insulting when it is used to describe minorities who break established stereotypes.

The doctor who fixed my eye happens to be African-American.

The electrical engineer happens to be a woman.

There is no reason why an African-American person cannot be a doctor or a woman cannot be an engineer. To avoid misunderstandings, it is best not to refer to sex, race or ethnicity, unless it is relevant. For example: The patient will want the dark brown artificial leg to match his skin colour. The phrase happens to be is used for a subtle sort of racism. Nothing bad is said directly, but it implies that a situation is abnormal.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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