Hedging and the Art of Language Maintenance

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the way I speak and write. As someone who writes I’ve found it interesting to take notice of certain patterns of speech and writing that come unconsciously to me. It seems obvious to say that the way in which we use language affects how others perceive us. But how often does anyone actually analyze what they are saying and how they are saying it to change that perception? In particular two of the things I have noticed in my language patterns are unnecessarily softening my language and adding meaningless extra words to what I am saying. They are really two parts to the same problem.

By softening my language I mean adding words that make what I am saying less direct. Adding words and phrases like “kind of,” “just,” or “maybe” are examples. After doing some research I found out that these types of words and phrases are referred to as hedges. There are times when using them might be appropriate, but the problem is that it had become a habit that I engage in even when there is no reason to. For example instead of saying “I don’t want to go” I would say “I don’t really think I want to go.” The essential meaning is the same but the second version is less direct and more wishy-washy. There are a lot of web pages devoted to showing how to intentionally soften one’s speech, especially for use in business scenarios. I understand how and to some extent why hedging is being used in those cases, but it doesn’t seem to be a good thing. It is a problem to normalize speech softening. It makes it seem wrong to say what we actually feel and mean. It’s not about being aggressive, or harsh, or abrasive. It’s about being honest without having to feel bad about that. That doesn’t mean everyone should have carte blanche to be an asshole and not consider people’s feelings. But not everything one says needs to be wrapped in layers of insecurity and unwillingness to state a hard opinion or preference.

It’s especially hard in written communication to get the intended tone across and that may be part of the reason I fell into that habit. Texting is a medium (in general and in my case in particular) that is full of softening language for that very purpose. I don’t want to come off as harsh, disagreeable, or unfriendly. It’s disappointing though, whether it’s just my perception or actually the case, that saying what I mean should seem any of those things. It’s not even about holding back controversial opinions. They are usually just mild preferences. Those situations shouldn’t have that much weight to them. So in noticing this I have tried to eliminate these words as much as possible from my language. There are occasionally times when I still insert those words into a message for a specific purpose, but I have tried to eliminate them from my automatic vocabulary. I feel it helps me come across as more decisive and sure of myself. I am not always those things but I don’t feel the need to advertise that fact. It’s partly an attempt to control how I am perceived and partly the urge to stop feeling as though I need to justify or apologize for my needs.  I can just say what I mean without hedging the message.

This is a personal exploration of one particular bad habit I have in using language, but it’s far from the only one I have. I would love to do a more thorough essay on the major problems we all have in the way we communicate today, but I would have little chance of doing a better job than George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” In it he lays out a basic guide for clear, fresh, and effective communication. I often fall far short of his tenets of writing but his guide is always there to get me back to where I need to be. His condensed basic rules are as follows:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to   seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I try to keep these rules in mind as much as possible. We would all do well to strive for more clarity and honesty in how we speak.