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Field Guide to North American Progressive Persons, Sorted by Conversational Grunts

By F+

In most major metropolises (with the exception of Houston), a party, cocktail, brunch, Brooklyn bungalow, book release, crafternoon may provide a thriving habitat for a bevy of Progressive Persons. Even for the relatively experienced, it can be difficult to identify individual types. With so many Planned Parenthood tote bags (each with a copy of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” tucked inside just enough so the title sticks out just over the top), it is all but impossible to differentiate. Luckily, Progressive Persons betray their true nature in conversation; one can identify them by their distinctive calls. At first listen, these conversational grunts — “Hmm,” “Mmm,” “Mmmmmmmmm,” etc. — sound nearly identical, but with this simple guide, you’ll soon hear their subtle idiosyncrasies.


illustrations by Sophie Lucido Johnson.





Mmmm. (Long and drawn-out, no reverberation, low tone, interjected non-disruptively over someone’s story about all the misuse of gender pronouns at a work meeting.)

A Joiner: This type of person listens to the headlines portion of Democracy Now twice a week for social purposes, and cut the Forever 21 labels out of their T-shirts after that big slave labor piece went viral on Facebook last month. Also identifiable by a pair of non-prescription, plastic-rimmed glasses, the purchase of which benefited an animal shelter for blind or near-blind dogs.












Mm. (Short and emphatic, intentionally added after someone says something that might be described as a metaphor, or, by another type of crowd, as melodramatic.)

A Poet: This type of person is more interested in “the politics of emotions” than they are in facts, unless the facts are outstanding enough to elicit significant emotion. This type of person goes to a lot of rallies and protests and is often tasked with coming up with some of the group chants, because they’ve dabbled in the slam poetry scene for a while. A variation of this type is An Artist — mostly distinguishable by a baffling wrist tattoo of what might be a river, and an asymmetrical and/or multicolored hairstyle.









Mmm hmm! Mmm hmm! Mmm hmm! (Excitable, loud, high-tempo bursts of sound, accompanied by vigorous nodding and a slightly open mouth, as though the person needs to add something really important to the conversation as soon as possible.)

An Intellectual: This type of person subscribes to over 20 print magazines that all identify as “nonprofit organizations.” The person is willing (if not excited!) to loudly approximate statistics that they have read on the following subjects: the prison industrial complex, other types of complexes, farm-to-table cooking, coconut oil, the colonization of the Oxford comma, James Franco, and overfishing as it relates to food deserts. This type of person also commonly begins sentences with, “I was going to write an article about this, actually.”










Hmm. (Vague quizzical tone, peppered between sentences about politics; accompanied by a slightly lifted eyebrow and squinted eyes.)

A Skeptic: This type of person “isn’t sure how they’re going to vote this year.”











Oh! Yes! Yeah yeah yeah. (Confident and a-twitter, filling a silence wherein most people ordinarily add something new to the conversation — for example, a follow-up question or a similar anecdote. This call is usually immediately followed by an expression of desire to use the bathroom, or to get another drink.)

An Ignorant Enthusiast: This type of person is not sure how they got into this conversation. Around the second sentence, this person realized that they were way out of their depth. But since they’ve already started nodding, they realize they are stuck and there’s no way out. This type of person wishes they cared about this topic. They’ve been meaning to get around to learning about it, actually, but they just don’t. Instead, they have noticed a little bit of food on the collar of the shirt of the person they are talking to, and they’re thinking about what kind of food that is, and wondering if there is any food at this party. They haven’t seen any. Oh, God. Has their conversational partner been walking around ALL DAY with that food on their collar!? Gross! Uh oh. Their conversational partner has stopped talking. This type of person has forgotten the subject altogether. What is there to do? It would be rude to mention the food-on-the-collar thing, right?







Huh. (Deeply concerned sounding, spoken with a hand on the throat.)

An Empathizer: This type of person is really listening. Really. This type of person is deeply moved by this story, and relates to it, because this kind of thing has happened to this person — if not exactly, at least in essence. This type of person is going to go and write a blog post about this very conversation.









Huh. (In an up-tone, spoken with chest out.)

A Dissenter: This type of person doesn’t care if the details being put forth in the conversation are technically true by someone’s standards, because this person has heard a different version of those same details, and knows for a FACT that they are actually NOT true.











Huh. (Said quietly, spoken while wearing a coat and looking around the room somewhat desperately.)

An Irish Exit-er: This type of person is not listening and is trying to find the nearest exit so that they may excuse themselves to “use the restroom.”


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