David Foster Wallace? Olin Miller? Lee Traveler? Ethel Barrett? Mark Twain? John Steinbeck? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: An astute quotation about insecurity is often attributed to the novelist and teacher David Foster Wallace:
You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.
Versions of this statement have also been credited to famous figures such as Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have not yet seen a precise citation for anyone. Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: David Foster Wallace did express this idea using a different phrasing in his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest”, and the details are given further below.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in December 1936. The words were credited to a jokesmith named Olin Miller. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.
Olin Miller’s thought should comfort the victims of self-pity, etc. . . . “You probably,” he submits, “wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!”
QI believes that Olin Miller was the most likely originator of this remark. Other individuals such as David Foster Wallace and Ethel Barrett employed the saying after it was already in circulation. The phrasing has varied as the quotation has evolved over the decades. The linkages to Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt appear to be spurious.
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the key Winchell citation above and other valuable citations. 4
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
An intriguing thematic precursor about excessive self-consciousness was published in 1751 by the prominent man of letters Samuel Johnson who emphasized that most people were preoccupied with their own affairs: 5
But the truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world, except where the interest of others is involved in his fortune. The common employments or pleasures of life, love or opposition, loss or gain, keep almost every mind in perpetual agitation. If any man would consider how little he dwells upon the condition of others, he would learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.
In 1936 and 1937 Olin Miller received credit for the adage as noted previously. In December 1938 a slightly different version of the saying was published as a filler item in the “Evening World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska without an attribution: 6
You wouldn’t worry about what people may think of you if you could know how seldom they do.
In February 1939 the expression was reprinted in a Clinton, New York newspaper with an acknowledgement to another paper: 7
You wouldn’t worry about what people may think of you if you could know how seldom they do.—St. Louis Star-Times.
In June 1939 the aphorism was printed as a filler item in the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” with an ascription to Olin Miller: 8
You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do! — Olin Miller
In June 1940 the long-running “Chicago Tribune” column “In the WAKE of the NEWS” by Arch Ward printed an instance in a section called “Thinkograms” and credited “Sonja and Bob” who probably relayed the remark to Ward: 9
We probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of us if we knew how seldom they do.
—Sonja and Bob.
In May 1941 the popular syndicated column “Office Cat” by Junius published the expression without an attribution: 10
You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!
In 1942 the remark was printed in the pages of the “Los Angeles Times” with an acknowledgment to the sender: 11
Jack Allis sends this comforting thought: “We wouldn’t worry so much about what folks think of us if we knew how seldom they do.”
In 1945 “Esquire” magazine published the saying together with a collection of miscellaneous quotations and credited someone named Lee Traveler: 12
We wouldn’t worry about what people think about us if we knew how seldom they do.
The connection to Olin Miller was not forgotten by some careful compilers. In 1955 the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude included the expression in the same form given by Walter Winchell in 1937 together with the same ascription: 13
You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do! — OLIN MILLER
In 1961 Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck’s book “The Winter of Our Discontent” included an instance presented in dialectical spelling: 14
Once a Canadian girl of Scottish blood told me a story that had bitten her and the telling bit me. She said that in the age of growing up when she felt that all eyes were on her and not favorably, so that she went from blushes to tears and back again, her Highland grandfather, observing her pain, said sharply. “Ye wouldna be sae worrit wi’ what folk think about ye if ye kenned how seldom they do.” It cured her and the telling reassured me of privacy, because it’s true.
In 1968 a humorous self-help book titled “Don’t Look Now But Your Personality is Showing” by Ethel Barrett placed the adage in an ornamented box on the first page without an ascription: 15
We would worry less about what others think of us, if we realized how seldom they do.
In 1994 a writer in the “St. Petersburg Times” of Florida connected the saying to the quotation magnet Mark Twain: 16
I was surprised to learn Mark Twain become rather cynical and bitter in his old age. “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you, if you knew how seldom they do,” he said. I could never have gotten away with saying that to my parents, but it would have been handy to know when I was a kid.
In 1996 David Foster Wallace published a capacious tome titled “Infinite Jest”, and he included a section about the bits of wisdom one might acquire at a fictional facility for the treatment of alcohol and drug dependence. Wallace’s version of the adage begins with the words “That you will”: 17
If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. . . .
That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.
By 2007 a variant of the saying was being attributed to the famous First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: 18
You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think if you realized how seldom they do. —Eleanor Roosevelt
In 2013 the periodical “Credit Management” printed an instance together with sundry quotations in a sidebar. The saying was ascribed to Ethel Barrett: 19
“We would worry less about what others think of us if we realised how seldom they do.” Ethel Barrett
In conclusion, QI believes that it is reasonable to credit Olin Miller with the version given in the 1936 citation. Ethel Barrett and David Foster Wallace helped to popularize the saying as indicated by the citations in 1968 and 1996 respectively.
(Great thanks to Corina Borsuk whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Frank Lynch proprietor of a valuable Samuel Johnson quotation website who pointed out the 1751 passage by Samuel Johnson. Thanks to Ed Raso who tweeted the John Steinbeck citation, and Jason Webster who linked the QI website within the twitter thread.)
Update History: On September 26, 2014 the September 1751 and the June 1939 citations were added. On September 27, 2014 the September 2007 citation was added and the 1996 cite verification status was updated. On May 31, 2019 the December 1936 citation was added. On June 18, 2020 the 1961 Steinbeck citation was added.
- 1936 December 19, Reno Evening Gazette, Olin Miller’s Comment, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 January 7, Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Logansport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1937 January 8, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “You wouldn’t worry about what people may think of you if you could know how seldom they do”, Date on website: September 01, 2013, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on September 9, 2014) link ↩
- 1752, The Rambler, Issue date: 1751 September 24, Number 159, (Essay by Samuel Johnson), Quote Page 6, Printed by Sands, Murray, and Cochran, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1938 December 27, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 14, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1939 February 2, The Clinton Courier, With the Paragraphers (Reprinted from Newsdem), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Clinton, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1939 June, Reader’s Digest, (Filler item with quotation), Quote Page 60, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1940 June 29, Chicago Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Thinkograms, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1941 May 13, Kingston Daily Freeman, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Kingston, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1942 March 24, Los Angeles Times, Lee Side o’L.A. by Lee Shippey, Quote Page A4, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1945 June, Esquire, Volume 23, Going the Rounds with Esquire, Start Page 106, Quote Page 107, Column 4, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Section: Reputation, Quote Page 332, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956) ↩
- 1961, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Chapter 14, Quote Page 241, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1968 copyright, Don’t Look Now (Don’t Look Now But Your Personality is Showing) by Ethel Barrett, (Epigraph before title page), Page not numbered, G/L Regal Books, Glendale, California. (Verified with scans of sixth printing in 1973) ↩
- 1994 February 22, St. Petersburg Times, Series: SENIORITY, Politics, violence and waiting by the phone by Louise Andryusky, Quote Page 23X, St. Petersburg, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1996, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Quote Page 200 and 203, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2007, Stress Management for Life: A Research-based Experiential Approach by Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson, (Quotation in a sidebar box), Quote Page 127, Published by Thomson/Wadsworth, Belmont, California. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2013 October, Credit Management, “Ten Tips for becoming personally empowered” by Nigel Risner, Pages 30 and 31, Published by Institute of Credit Management Ltd., United Kingdom. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete) ↩