Years ago, I was managing a team of after-school arts teachers. We stepped into a gap created when public schools reduced funding for music and theater in the routine curriculum. While a dynamic presence, there was one of our teachers who was chronically late and unprepared. My supervisor texted me that he suspected something needed to be done. I texted back "We have to fire Jill" (not real name).
The problem was that "Jill" was also texting me at the same time and my "have to fire" went to her. Terror struck and I decided to call "Jill" immediately. On the phone, I did all kinds of verbal acrobatics to essentially convince "Jill" that it was an error and there was so much more to the story and it wasn't what it seemed to be. "Jill" bought it!
Then got fired.
In less dramatic ways, I still find myself being two-faced. I mean one thing. I say another. I surround my real intent with a cushion of flattery, apology, and abstraction. If the truth comes out (as it most often does), it will be more painful and confusing than if I had been up front.
And I tell myself this is caring and mature.
It's got to stop.
In This Post...
Why Do We Pull Our Verbal Punches?
The Awful Effects of Mitigating Language
9 of Joseph's Favorite Face-Saving Phrases
Why Do We Pull Our Verbal Punches?
"Mitigating language" is a strategy adopted by every human I've ever met. It is the addition of words for the purpose of managing unwanted responses we predict we might experience from others.
"Mitigating language" is the addition of words for the purpose of managing unwanted responses we predict we might experience from others.
The reason we might pepper our interactions with mitigating language is to, well, mitigate the possibility of someone disapproving of us, or distrusting us, or dismissing us—what Brown and Levinson call "face-threatening acts". In other words, we use mitigating language to "save face".
Our human conversations are littered with these negotiations.
"You are fired." just seems more heartless than "I have the unpleasant task as Director of HR to bring you the bad news that we will no longer employ you." We hope the hearer of these bad tidings might respond with "I feel so bad for you! What an unfortunate burden you've been forced to carry. But no worries! If the company no longer needs me, that really frees me up to explore my next chapter! Thank you so much. Don't give it another thought."
But it even shows for me up when no human is around.
I am a praying person and I've adopted a new prayer habit. The habit is removing the word "just". I keep the term if I mean "I want what is just in this unjust situation", but I'm removing it when I'm asking God for something I want. Typically, it's been "God, I just want my neighbors to..., I just want you tell you..., I just think you are...". My "just"'s are mitigating language. My "just"'s belie a certain shame or embarrassment I feel in saying what I'm really thinking or wanting. Intellectually, I'm convinced God already knows what I want and loves me just as I am. I have the freedom to be complete real and unfiltered, and God can handle it.
I'm not going to argue for zero mitigation. A measure of it might be best and different levels create different experiences:
Level 1 (me): What you want to express/request as clearly as possible.
Level 2 (we): What you want to express/request including respect to the other person
Level 3 (you): What you want to express/request in subjugation to the other person
An example of this might be...
Level 1 (me): "Sit down."
Level 2 (we): "Please sit down."
Level 3 (you): "I would really appreciate it if you would do me a favor and sit down."
Adding kind and respectful words can communicate honor, gratitude, deference, humility, and friendship. More, please! Parents, teachers, supervisors, preachers, oncologists, and police officers serve so well when they exercise emotional intelligence. It's helpful to add language for the sake of the hearer.
But I find—in most cases—we justify this tactic (subconsciously) by believing it is more polite than directly saying what we want to say. It's for the sake of the speaker. There is some hope that, by "understating" what we really mean, we can make progress and maintain the reputation of being a "nice" or "selfless" person. We make the case that hedging, being vague, or adding disclaimers is the only way to get what we want and be respectful.
I would argue that it's neither.
In fact, I might go so far as to say it's the opposite: It rarely gets you what you want and it's insulting.
Mitigating language rarely gets you what you want and it's insulting.
Then, why do we use it? Because it works! At least in the short term.
If your goal is to reduce some anticipated negative reaction, then pulling the punch of what you want to ask or want to say will often result in a neutral or slightly-more-pleasant experience for your counterpart. This will probably feel good for you (because it feels good when people like us).
However, over the long-term, it erodes human relationships.
The Awful Effects of Mitigating Language
Obfuscation creates distrust. Attentive people won't be fooled. Your wife, boss, friends, and kids absolutely know when you're leaving something unsaid. They know you're more angry than you let on. They know you don't like the gift they gave you. They know you're frustrated with the team. They know you need help. Sometimes, they probe. Many times they don't. Either way, you're building a reputation as someone who means more than they are saying. This creates distrust.
In addition, mitigating language subtlety tells the other person that their reactions need to be managed. It tells them you believe they "can't handle the truth!" or can't say "no" for themselves or experience emotions that are unwelcome with you. I can't state this more strongly: it tells people they are fragile, gullible, or difficult.
Mitigating language tells people they are fragile, gullible, or difficult.
The antidote to these crimes is simple (though not necessarily easy). Speak plainly. Err on the side of being direct and clear. Ask for what you want in ways that are kind, but straight-forward. At first, you might be the only one in your family or classroom or team to speak like this—cultures often default to vague and polite and need disruption to change. But this is the most loving and noble way to relate.
You can handle the aftermath. You can handle a "no". You can clear up misunderstandings.
Trust and honor are worth the discomfort.
9 of Joseph's Favorite Face-Saving Phrases
I'm going to out myself, Internet. The following is a list of some of my favorite "tells". If you hear me using any of these, it is likely I'm feeling the need to pad my speech. When I'm committed to people-pleasing, these little gnats fly out of my mouth.
Like the rest of this list, these words can be incredibly productive and clear. However, Joseph can often use them to protect his comfort or look good. In this case, I can add "I promise" to a commitment when I'm aware that I've been unreliable with this person historically. "I promise I'll be there by 10" upgrades "I'll be there by 10" to mean, "I know I've not been trustworthy with this in the past. I know you know. But this time, I want you to forget that." The stronger choice is saying "I'll be there by 10" and letting my actions rebuild trust in my word.
"If you don't mind..." / "...if that's OK."
I add this beauty mark to a request when I want to say "I'm not the kind of person who will take advantage of you" or "I get uncomfortable when people help me".* It's far more respectful to simply ask for what I want and trust that the other person has more than enough maturity to make up their own mind.
*Related to this is the poor habit of saying "no" on someone's behalf. The thinking that "They're so busy, they wouldn't be interested" stops us before we start. This is an invisible way of believing people can't decide for themselves. Never say "no" on someone's behalf. Ask and let them say what they want to say.
"If I could..."
Usually put immediately before I do the thing I'm asking to do. For instance, "If I could just ask..." is asking permission to ask the thing that I'm asking in that same sentence. "If I could just borrow..." is said simultaneously with me grabbing their iPad. Again, not a good or bad phrase, but it's braver for me to plainly ask the darn question or state my intentions. This phrase also signals a lack of confidence to the hearer. "If I could just..." sounds nervous.
It also includes my next go-to.
I've already illustrated how this shows up in my spiritual conversations. It also appears person-to-person. Every time I cut it out, the statement of request is that much clearer. "I was just wanting to stay in tonight" is not as strong as "I want to stay in tonight."
"I don't know, but..." or "I could be wrong, but..."
For the record, I love this posture when people are sincere. It's powerful in work of people development. The problem comes in when I know I'm not sincere. I'm convinced. I'm certain. I "know" I'm right. But I don't want to sound like a "know-it-all", so I weave this in. "I don't know, but I think you missed the point of the assignment." It also appears when I'm giving unsolicited feedback (bad move). Maybe it's to another dad who wasn't asking for input and I say, "I could be wrong about this, but I don't think it's great for your kid when you scold them like that." It's like a silencer on the gun. I still fire a bullet, but I think I've gotten away with it.
"That could be true..."
Similar to the previous example, I really like this one when it's sincere. When someone shares an opinion or a headline or a hot take, I'm not always up-to-date. I don't always know what I think. To say "That could be true..." might mean "I don't have reason to believe you're misinformed or wrong. You might be right." That's respectful. But I sometimes use it when I've already made up my mind, and it's uncomfortable to flatly say "I disagree...".
Again, in feedback—that beautiful, transformative practice—I will add the adverbial "kind of" or "sort of" or "a little" to an observation if I want to coddle someone's feelings.* So insulting.
"Please give me some feedback."
"Well, your talk felt sort of unprepared."
How about the far more direct and helpful,
"You came across unprepared."
*"...to some extent..." is a related waste of space. "You are bring selfish to some extent." Everything is to "some" extent! Useless.
My wife and kids can write their own post about this one. I have historically included little terms of endearment to put pillows around a punch. "Sweetheart, I'm disappointed that you [fill in the blank]". Again, you might think that sounds caring—and it can be. But I know myself and I know the times I'm doing it out of fear. My wife is more than capable of hearing what I want and what I think. It's laughable to me that I've ever thought otherwise. It's helpful to my daughters to hear me lead them and discuss consequences at their level. "Babying" them is disrespectful and dilutes my influence in their lives.
"Anyway" (pronounced "Aaaanywaaaaay.")
I pop this in after I've finished speaking. For me it means, "I think I've talked too much or bored you, we can talk about something else now."
You use mitigating language. I guarantee it.
But that doesn't mean you are dumb, stupid, or cowardly. You are human.
Becoming aware of your words reveals where you're withholding all of who you are in a situation and all of what's possible in our relationships. I advocate for a more honest, strong, courageous world where people are curious, kind, and say what they mean. It would save so much time and resentment.
My wife, kids, and executive assistant could add several more to my list. Do you have any "tells" you're willing to share with us?