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.”

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