Dear Dumb Runner,
I recently ran a trail race where three different distances were on parts of the course at the same time. Much of it was single track so when someone wanted to pass, slower runners had to step off the trail and wait. Some of the time, runners in the longest distance were standing aside for runners in a shorter distance who were just starting out. A great majority of them would say "Good job" as they passed. Stand aside for four people, hear "good job," "good job," "good job," "good job."
I started wondering: What was this job that I was doing so well? Being slower than you? Getting far enough out of your way? Just being out running? Wouldn't "thanks" be better, and less condescending? And what should I say back?—Teresa R., Long Beach, California
Hearing "good job" has become so common during races, we've largely stopped hearing it. It's background noise, like the half-hearted clapping of bored spectators or the rhythmic breathing of our fellow runners.
The phrase itself, absent any context, sounds nice and positive—half of it is the word good!—and in many settings it is. In others, it's just weird, at best.
I've said (and heard) "good job" many times myself, while passing someone (or being passed) in a road race. In these cases, the full intended message, I think, is "good job hanging in there, the pain is almost over, keep it up." At least that's what I mean when I say it. Or gasp it.
In the scenario you describe? "Good job... standing there"? Yeah, that sounds odd. Especially when it's repeated in rapid succession. In this case, you are correct that a simple "thanks" would have been more appropriate. That's what we say to acknowledge an act of kindness.
As for what you should have said back, that's a tough one. A snarky "you're welcome" would probably just confuse the runner passing you, if he or she heard it at all. A curious "what?" or "huh?" would convey your sense of puzzlement, and might, maybe, make him or her pause to think.
Or you could fight fire with fire, and respond to this verbal silliness with an equally absurd non sequitur, e.g.,
Runner passing you on narrow trail: "Good job!"
You, standing aside as runner passes: "Legume!"
Personally I think it's time we retire the phrase "good job" altogether. "Good job" had a good run. ("Good job," good job!) But it's grown trite and, as your experience illustrates, it can come across as mindless and annoying. It's our version of the restaurant server's "are you still working on that?" A small thing, but it grates.
Surely there are better, more original things we could say to encourage each other in these situations. How about "looking good"? Or "hang in there"? Or, I dunno, "hi"? Something to think about during the next race.
Thanks for the question. Nice work!