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A commonly used American phrase, but one that still baffles me if I stop and think about it. Why does "tell me about" actually mean, "I understand what you're talking about as I have experienced it myself". Not only are you not literally inviting the person to go into more detail, but (most confusingly) you're actually kind of suggesting that they don't need to tell you any more. Which is the very opposite of what you've said.

For example:

Employee 1: (reading a letter from management) "It says I'm being laid off. Can you believe that?"
Employee 2: (holding up a similar letter) "Tell me about it."

For such a simple and straightforward phrase, I'm confused as to how it morphed into meaning something else. You could argue that the person is being sarcastic when they say it: "Tell me about it -- as if I don't already know!", but it's usually said in a sympathetic tone, not a deriding one.

Where did it originate, and how did it get its unusual meaning? For non-native speakers, it can be very confusing!

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I've hopefully clarified what I was trying to convey. Thanks for your feedback, everyone. –  Django Reinhardt Apr 26 '11 at 0:12
    
The important thing to remember, and you probably already know this, is that often, when you try to think a language idiom thru, it doesn't even make sense to native speakers. Native speakers, even ones who are supposed to know about language get confused on how language works. William Safire, who used to write On Language, for the NT Times [I think], comes immediately to mind. –  Dan Apr 26 '11 at 5:04
    
I agree with Dan here: by definition an idiom doesn't literally make sense. It's a strange experience to see an idiom questioned here and start typing about how clear it is and how it actually makes sense when... and then you suddenly experience the tension of trying to say that word X in the idiom obviously means Y and suddenly realizing that there's no place outside of that idiom that this is true. You know that it means one thing and yet that it cannot at the same time. –  Wayne May 20 '11 at 22:17
    
I always kind of assumed it was short for "You don't have to tell ME about it." which kind of indicates that you understand what they're going through and probably sympathize. –  user50598 Aug 27 '13 at 2:37
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It's typically said with a sarcastic tone, and tends to imply a longer message: "Tell me about it, as if I don't already know enough about it." Indeed, you'll sometimes see people say "as if I don't know!" in the same place they'd say "tell me about it."

A more direct version is "join the club," which is an implication of "you think you're in a special predicament? Come join the club we've all already started."

Typically, the shorter messages are used because they flow better and have entered the zeitgeist, so the longer meaning is assumed to be understood.

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Wow, if you've not only gone and put up a good argument that "tell me about it" does mean the opposite -- despite what @MrHen and @Robusto have tried to argue. Interesting! –  Django Reinhardt Apr 26 '11 at 11:57
    
I'd actually argue that the third example in @MrHen's first blockquote is a similar shortening- "You think that's news? Yeah sure, tell me what else you think is new!" –  matthias Apr 26 '11 at 21:07
    
Well, to be honest, I've never either "tell me about it" or "join the club" said enthusiastically-- only muttered with an ironic tone of one sort or another. Of course, feigned enthusiasm qualifies as a form of sarcasm, right? –  matthias Jan 13 '12 at 17:14
    
Yep, that's true. –  Django Reinhardt Dec 17 '12 at 21:04
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It's not a contradiction, exactly, it's an ironic reflection, as in reflecting the statement back at the speaker. Kind of like:

You've got troubles? You should hear about my troubles!

It doesn't mean "don't tell me about it"; it just means I could tell you about it. Or "We're in the same boat." But the phrasing seems to fit the current zeitgeist (and has for at least a couple of decades), so it just works.

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Hey, thanks for your answer. I know it's a sarcastic/ironic. I know it doesn't literally mean "don't tell me about it", but by saying "tell me about it" you're essentially saying, "yeah, I know, you don't need to go into more detail" -- so the opposite of "tell me about it". Also, it doesn't mean "You've got troubles? You should hear mine!" It means, "I've got the same troubles", but I get your point. –  Django Reinhardt Apr 25 '11 at 1:54
    
This is a case where context is the key, not the words themselves. You still see the phrase "Tell me about it" in the context that the speaker actually does want to hear about it. The way it is used is definitely idiomatic these days though. –  MaQleod Apr 25 '11 at 16:03
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@Django: "Tell me about it" does not necessarily mean "you don't need to go into more detail." It is an expression of sympathy. –  MrHen Apr 25 '11 at 18:09
    
I've tried to clarify my confusion with this phrase more succinctly. I did a very poor job of asking my question initially, confusing the matter by flippantly stating it meant the opposite. As MrHen and Robusto have pointed out, it doesn't literally mean "stop talking". –  Django Reinhardt Apr 26 '11 at 0:14
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It's a sarcastic response. Taken literally the sentence would mean the speaker isn't already familiar with the situation and wants more information. However it is rarely (these days never) meant literally and is used sarcastically to mean the opposite, that the speaker is already familiar with the situation. In meaning it's similar to the expression "you don't say?" There again the speaker is acting like they don't already know when in fact they do.

The difference between these two expressions however is that "tell me about it" has taken on a sympathetic tone over the years, to indicate shared misery, whereas "you don't say?" is an insult where you don't actually care what the person has to say.

There's little in the words themselves to indicate that difference. That difference is simply the connotations those expressions have taken on over time. Tone of voice is pretty critical here, because the difference between a sympathetic statement and an insulting one is simply a different inflection while saying the exact same words.

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Strictly speaking, it doesn't mean the opposite. There are plenty of phrases that are used in similar ways:

Yeah, right!

Oh, stop it!

Yeah, what else is new?

But the meaning of the phrase is not the opposite of "tell me more about this subject." It is an expression of acknowledgement and buddy sympathy along the lines of "been there; done that." The person on the receiving end of "tell me about it" is not going to perceive the response as a signal to stop complaining about the subject. If anything, the response is a signal to ask about the other person's experiences or to expect a counter story:

Ugh; so was fast food every actually fast?

Tell me about it. I just waited an hour for them to fry a chicken.

This type of conversation can result in a back and forth one-up contest or simply a segue into a loosely related topic:

[Kramer and Newman at the park, smoking cigars]

KRAMER: Well, I really miss the Bermuda Triangle.

NEWMAN: I guess there's not much action down there these days.

KRAMER: Oh, there's action. There's plenty of action. That damned alien autopsy is stealing all the headlines.

NEWMAN: Yeah, tell me about it.

KRAMER: See, what they gotta do is lose a plane or a Greenpeace boat in there. See, that would get the triangle going again.

NEWMAN: What keeps the water in there? I mean, why doesn't it disappear?

KRAMER: What would be the point in taking the water?

NEWMAN: It's gorgeous water. (pause) Do we own Bermuda?

KRAMER: No. It belongs to the British.

NEWMAN: Lucky krauts.

KRAMER: So, what do you think about that alien autopsy?

NEWMAN: Oh, that's real.

KRAMER: I think so too.

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I think you've gotten too hung up on the title of this question. Let me ask you: Does "tell me about" literally mean "please tell me more about the subject of which you speak"? Is the person who says it genuinely interested in hearing more about a subject they've just expressed sharing a similar experience in (usually a tale of woe)? Or is it an expression that means, "yeah, I've experienced similar pain"? I'm going to change the title, because it's become distracting. (Also, I don't think a conversation between Newman and Kramer could ever be used as an example of a "normal" conversation ;) –  Django Reinhardt Apr 26 '11 at 0:08
    
Mr Hen, check out @matthias's response for a decent argument why it does mean the opposite. –  Django Reinhardt Apr 26 '11 at 11:59
    
I tend to agree with @MrHen here, at least about the origin of the phrase. A related phrase: "preach it" or "preach on". These are not always to be taken literally as encouragement to continue. –  JeffSahol Apr 26 '11 at 12:28
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@Mari-LouA: I copied the text from a Seinfeld episode. But you're right, that's a typo. ;) –  MrHen Dec 20 '13 at 14:13
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@Mari-LouA: Is that better? ;) –  MrHen Dec 20 '13 at 16:27
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There is a certain speech law, saying that speakers try to express more information with less effort. That is, the less words are used and the more information is expressed, the better. Thus, for example, English speakers tend to omit auxiliary verbs ("Want a drink?" instead of "Do you want a drink?"). The same thing happened to the phrase "Tell me about it as if I don't know it!" This phrase is so common in American English that every speaker knows that the usage of one of its parts implies the existence of the other one. So, it is not necessary to say "as if I don't know it" if you say "Tell me about it", and vice versa. Both parts express the same idea, so why use both of them if it is clear what the speaker wants to express? Of course, it is very important what kind of situation the phrase is used in. "Tell me about it" can have a direct meaning if you want to learn something from your interlocutor. But it has a completely different meaning if it is clear that you express agreement in a sarcastic or ironic way implying that you have experienced it yourself. In this case you use this phrase as a cliche, and your interlocutor knows its second part and understands what you want to express. By the way, sarcasm and irony are two "built-in" language ways of changing the meaning without changing the form. Intonation, non-verbal means of communication (facial expression, mimics, gestures) and the communicative situation help sarcasm and irony change the meaning of any phrase or word.

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This is a run-on paragraph, and thus hard to understand. –  tchrist Jun 30 at 19:01
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This is very similar to the former, but not lamented, constant replies of "been there, done that." While I will not quibble about identification, irony, or sarcasm, the implicit communication appears to be the same as that of "BTDT:" I really DON'T want to hear any more about it so stop right there. I have often been tempted to take the current item literally and really tell people about it...

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protected by tchrist Jun 30 at 19:02

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