What we signal when we speak: Verbal tee-ups, honesty, and tact

In “Why Verbal Tee-Ups Like ‘To Be Honest’ Often Signal Insincerity: James W. Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, Austin, says these phrases are a form of dishonesty,” Elizabeth Bernstein ends with a quote: “You are more likely to seem like someone who is perfectly honest when you are no longer commenting on it.”

That’s probably true in some situations, but verbal tee-ups are (often) a decorous way of saying, “I’m going to say something you don’t want to hear” or “I’m potentially going to violate social convention by saying this.” They’re demonstrating social deftness by pre-empting feelings of the receiver saying or thinking, “This person is a jerk.”

In many cases qualifiers should be eliminated, but they exist for a reason and, as someone sometimes accused of being an asshole when I’m being honest (or trying to be), I’m aware of why verbal tee-ups are often deployed the way they’re deployed. Bernstein says, “for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.” She’s right—the phrases are sometimes confusing. But sometimes they make it easier to hear what the speaker is saying. Bernstein does write:

Her advice is either to abort your speaking mission and think about whether what you wanted to say is something you should say, or to say what you want to say without using the phrase. “Eliminating it will automatically force you to find other more productive ways to be diplomatic,” Ms. Jovin says.

In general thinking about what you say, to the extent you can do so on the fly, is a good idea, but it’s also hard to do—which is probably why we get encouraged to do so so often. Qualifiers are a way of keeping your identity small while still speaking substantively. We could call the judicious use of verbal tee-ups “tact.”

Links: Sibling loss, free speech, self-publishing, transfer of learning, and more

* Quora answers: “What does it feel like to have your sibling die?” HT MR.

* The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform.

* Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again: What kind of democracy teaches its young people they’ll be punished for talking out of turn?

* The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web. This basically describes where I’m going.

* From Tyler Cowen, a link to “Working 9 to 12: ‘How Much Is Enough?’ by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky:”

I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.

As I said in MR’s comments, to me, the situation may not have improved that much; as an undergrad I went from Clark University to the University of East Anglia for a semester and was shocked at the condition of the latter, and of England in general. Notice too this:

There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

I like my work, most of the time, and would probably be bored being idle. We might be better off if we tried to do things we like, and, if we can’t, we should at least try to like the things that we do.

* “Low Transfer of Learning: The Glass Is Half Full,” which ends with this: “Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job. Seriously.”

On standard English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), dialects, and efficiency

A recent Hacker News thread links to a paper by Arnold Zwicky arguing that African American Vernacular English is not Standard English with mistakes. Its purpose is to explore a large controversy over the possible exploration of AAVE in Oakland schools, and the discussion around the paper on Hacker News heated up when Paul Graham said, “The argument here is in effect that no vernacular variant of any language could possibly embody a mistake. Which is true for some definitions of mistake, and false for others.” In response, “grandalf 9” said, “AAVE is no more “improper” Standard English than Spanish is improper Standard English.” Graham didn’t disagree with that statement, but would rather prefer to change the ideas behind it: whether AAVE is “proper” or not depends on the context, and in another reply grandalf 9 said, “Well, I think the burden of proof is on you to show why language mistakes matter at all.”

I took him up on the challenge. The big challenge with language “mistakes” (or whatever) is that they can inhibit efficient communication among parties. The lesser problem is that they might signal low educational status and/or incompetence: I know there is no such thing as “standard English,” but you can get pretty close to it through guides like Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers or my favorite work, Write Right! The further you get from this thing that’s close to standard English, the more likely you are to sound incompetent or incomprehensible.

If someone comes into a job interview—or Y Combinator interview—speaking AAVE, or some wildly non-standard form of English, they’re probably signaling that they haven’t figured out how to speak, if not “proper” English, then a form of English that will allow them to communicate with high-level technical workers. They’re not likely to get the job or the funding or the lawsuit won or whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish. That’s the problem, rather than some abstract problem about language purity.

There isn’t a central authority language because there doesn’t need to be: as Foucault might argue, there are merely different loci of power or force that tend to create webs of what is acceptable or not in a given situation.

“The fact is, language changes over time like any other fashion. If you don’t like a particular grammar or a particular fashion that is a matter of taste.”

Which is all very interesting until you’re applying for a job or writing a research paper and you can’t write something very close to standard English, at which point you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want to. A friend of mine actually wrote a very interesting paper (which is, to my knowledge, still unpublished and shouldn’t be) on the use of AAVE in Walter Mosley’s books, and she argues persuasively that Mosley’s deployment of AAVE is central to his being able to perform his job as a detective and navigate the “white” and “African American” worlds.

“You can make the argument that using Standard English (and wearing a suit) are useful social conventions to adopt when going to a job interview, but I think the usefulness of either judgment ends there.”

I don’t. The fundamental issue is what you signal and how efficiently you communicate. Whether you wear a suit or not has little to do with how you communicate verbally or in writing; whether you can speak something akin to standard English matters enormously. If you speak AAVE at home, it’s vital to be able to speak standard English for most purposes that are generally associated with success in the United States (academic advancement, business contacts, legal and medical contexts, etc.).

Another commenter named “aristus” says: “A standard joke about that: a dialect is an ideolect with a history and body of literature. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Language is an instrument of politics like any other.” He’s right, but I would say “power” instead of politics.

For more on standard (or not) English, see Speaking good from Language Log (“The obvious thing to do was to teach VBE speakers how to add Standard English to their repertoires and to use it in socially appropriate and expected contexts but NOT to wipe out their vernacular…”) and How safer is America today? (“Now some background about the system of standard English…”)

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