Choose Your Words

That person was my friend Shaun Kennedy who has a degree in linguistics, and is a fantastic person to debate issues like this with. Here’s an abridged version of our conversation:

Harriet: Do you think that ‘permissive’ words like that have the effect the writer suggests?

Shaun: Just from my own personal instinct I would agree with what she says about it qualifying a statement in order to lessen the request or diminish the weight of it. Emails (and Instant Messages) are always interesting to look at in terms of tone because they’re typically seen as more formal by nature, especially given their importance in the workplace, and so using ‘just’ is an easy way to make the discussion seem more conversational, especially if you’re managing up or something.

Harriet: Very true. Do you think it is a gender thing? Are girls more likely to use permissive language or qualifiers like “just”?

Shaun: The most accepted theory these days is that there are no inherent classes or differences based on gender but there are styles of speech that can be used by either depending on the role they’re fulfilling in a conversation, and that role is not dependent on gender. Linguistics is all about social construction. But another theory states that gender differences are more related to cultural differences. The theory states that men tend to use a “report style,” which looks to communicate factual information, where women are more like to use a “rapport style,” where the concern is around building and maintaining relationships. If that is true then using a word like “just” is perfect for the rapport over report type.

There are also studies that correlated women as being more polite in their language, but weaker as a consequence of trying to avoid negative face. So yeah, it could be that women use it more.

Harriet: Interesting. What would you advise, in terms of language, people do when trying to make good impressions and project confidence – be it work, school, socially etc? What other words do you know of that come under that category?

Shaun: Well qualifiers (words that limit other words’ meanings) and intensifiers (words that enhance other words’ meanings) are what you’re looking at when you want to express your confidence in what you’re saying. So if you’re qualifying what you’re saying you’re obviously not confident in the information you’re trying to express. If you are confident in it, and you’re still qualifying it, it might be because of some other reason, whether it’s a role accepted in the context, or culture, or whatever. Academic writing typically “hedges” with the use of qualifiers to ensure that an accurate level of certainty is portrayed, for example.

I would recommend keeping those two types of words in mind when you’re communicating, and you want to be sure that your level of certainty is being accurately projected. Qualifiers are words like may, might, could, appears, seems, suggests, probably, possibly, etc. Intensifiers are like ‘very’, ‘really’, ‘terribly’, etc. The term that author uses, ‘permission words’ isn’t a thing so far as I know but it certainly has the same effect as a qualifier, in that it modifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, so that it is lesser. So I would group those together. If you want to avoid hedging your communications in the office then use fewer qualifiers.

‘Just’, when used in the context of that article, is an adverb. Sometimes it’s specifically used to reduce the force of an imperative (“just follow the directions” v.s. “follow the directions”), or to convey a less serious tone (“I just called to say hi”), or to convey humility (“we just wanted to thank you”). That comes by way of its other adverbial meaning of ‘simply, barely, merely’ the qualifying sense that I was talking about before. But interestingly it comes from an etymological line that would have once been an intensifier, as the Middle-English sense of ‘just’ as an adjective meant ‘exactly, sincerely, precisely’, and is linked to the ‘just so’ meaning (“I want everything just so”). And they both stem from the latin -iustus, which is where we get the English word Justice. A bit off topic, but something I found interesting.

Harriet: Very much so! That’s quite the turnaround from the issue in this article. Do you know of any other words that come under that category?

Shaun: Linguistics is concerned with what people do, not what they should do, and so evolution of language is interesting to me. Like when people complain that literally no longer means literally, in the way people use it these days, but it instead means the exact opposite. Which, for a start, is true of a lot of words. I can sanction a request, and that’s a good thing, or I can sanction a country, and that’s bad, for example.

When you’re choosing words, or altering your diction as the rhetoric scholars will put it, you’re going to influence your style. And that’s always going to influence the audience’s impression. We already talked about word choice for expressing confidence with qualifiers and intensifiers, and the other way to influence style is through tone. Which is best done in writing, I’ve found, by simply imagining a situation where those words would be spoken rather than read, and writing them to mimic that situation. If you’re writing a short request email to a coworker, write it as though you’re asking them by the water cooler. If you’re writing a proposal to your boss, write it as though you’re speaking at the board meeting. If you’re texting a friend, you’re going to write it as though you’re simply conversing in person, and so on.

Harriet: Wow Shaun, thanks for your amazing advice, I feel a lot less divided on the topic now.

Shaun: I knew those rhetoric papers would come in handy haha.

Shaun certainly gave me a lot to think about, and it really started to reassure me. Yes, I was glad I was recognising that my language was at times having unintended consequences and not projecting the confidence or clear messages I wanted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to impose a complete moratorium on a word. While I could get down to the nitty gritty on which situations it is and isn’t appropriate to use the word, what I have really learned from this experience is to have a heightened awareness of whether the words I choose to use are having the right effect for my situation.

I’m glad that the “J word” is now a good psychological checkpoint that makes me think “Could I be more clear, direct or assertive here?” It also forces me to think “Am I wording this too strongly? Should I be a little more casual when talking to this particular person?” All in all, a bit of linguistic education from Shaun has really helped me to choose my words more carefully, and I am very grateful for it!▼

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