I previously explored some parts of this blog post in a post and discussion on Facebook. That thread served as a starting point for the themes I’m continuing to wrestle with in this post. Still evolving, still looking for input.
We couch our communication in conditional language, softening our words and ourselves in the process. It’s a soul-squashing practice. That’s the warning career coach Tara Sophia Mohr offers in a recent listicle, 10 Things Not to Say at Work. Most articles in the format hide tired and superficial advice under come-hither linkbait headlines, but Neha Gandhi’s piece does the opposite. Don’t let the title turn you off; this isn’t a puff piece detailing the dangers of sharing your weekend plans.
Every time you want to “just check in,” “just review,” or “just ask about” something important, you diminish its importance—and yours, cautions Mohr. We add those modifiers so we don’t come on too strong, she explains, but then may sound “defensive, a little whiny, and tentative.” She draws similar conclusions for phrases like “kind of” and qualifiers like “I’m no expert, but…”
Conditional phrasing can bloat our sentences and our thinking. But while I agree it has an impact on how others perceive us, I don’t know that it’s always a negative impact.
“‘Does that make sense'” can be useful if you’re looking to solicit feedback and input from reticent coworkers,” comments content strategist Chris Moritz. Though, he notes, it’s “Better used by managers and above.” Rise to a position of credibility before you risk chipping away at it, or consider the source and audience?
Early in my career, in both personal and professional contexts, people encouraged me to “soften” the directness of my tone. I started punctuating emails with smiley faces. I introduced more rhetorical questions into my speech—but they weren’t so rhetorical. As I ended declarative sentences with “right?” I started to wonder it myself. I hated it. Those smiley faces were fake.
Experience strategist Megan Grocki describes coming back from this point. “I’m working on ‘owning it’ more in my communication style,” she writes. Remove those modifiers and you risk spotlighting their author. Increase risk and you increase reward, or at least underscore courage in your convictions.
While I think my colleagues’ advice stemmed from their own insecurities, I do think they taught me a key skill: messaging can be clear but also demands cultural awareness—especially if you’re talking to people who are more comfortable beating around the bush in their own communication. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but cultural sensitivity is the heart of action. And now I try to surround myself with colleagues who don’t shrink at the sound of their own ideas.
When the words we choose affect how others perceive our ideas and us—and how we perceive our ideas and ourselves—is it worthwhile to smother and smooth them over? Do we smooth and blunt their corners and risk losing too much for meager gain? Or is the opportunity to engage others in their own culture of communication worth hiding the sharp points in our words, our thinking, and ourselves?