Verbal Tee-Ups: A More Positive Spin

Golf copy“Politeness is another word for deception,” James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, is quoted as saying in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. The statement brought me up short because it is so different from how I discuss politeness in my courses.

As I say to students, living together is hard. And I don’t mean “living together” in the sense of sharing an apartment or home with roommates or romantic partners. I mean “living together” in the sense of sharing this planet, trying to make our way through the world alongside all the other people in our communities who are also trying to make their way through the world. Don’t get me wrong: Living together with all these other people is also wonderful. But there is a lot of social work involved, because in order to get along on a day-to-day basis, we need to be nice to each other and respectful of what other people need and want. That’s where politeness comes in.

Linguists have a useful concept called “face,” which is fundamentally about each person’s desire to be liked and respected as well as their desire to do what they want to do, unimpeded by others. Of course, there are threats to our face all the time. Sometimes people need to tell us things that may not make us feel liked or respected. And much of the time we don’t get to do exactly what we want to do because other people need or want us to do something else. Politeness is a big part of how we navigate all the threats we need to make to other people’s “face wants” every day.

This brings me back to The Wall Street Journal article, which was titled “Why Verbal Tee-Ups Like ‘To Be Honest’ Often Signal Insincerity.” The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, begins with an amusing anecdote about having her brain stall and stop listening after a friend started a sentence “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way”; she knew that whatever was coming next wasn’t good.

Of course, Bernstein is absolutely right about the way the conventionalized phrase “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way” has come to function as a “verbal tee-up” in conversation. We use it to let someone know that we are about to say something that threatens their “positive face” (that desire to be liked and approved of that I mentioned above).

I like to think of a phrase like that not as a tee-up but as a traffic signal, letting our listeners know what lies ahead conversationally. If we know that we’re about to threaten someone’s face, either by saying something potentially damaging or by asking them to do something that may be an imposition, it can be nice—or to put it differently, polite—to give them a moment to prepare for the speech act that is coming.

Let’s imagine that I need an extension from the Lingua Franca editor because I just couldn’t get my blog post done on time. I might start my request with “I’m sorry to have to ask … ” or “I understand if this isn’t possible but … ” or “I was wondering if there was a way that … ” Each of these phrases signals to her that I’m about to make a request, and the request may create something of a hassle for her. I could just say, “Can I get an extension?” or “I need an extension,” but those versions don’t feel very polite. They are abrupt and don’t give her a lot of wiggle room. The other openings not only let the editor know what is coming (an imposition) but also acknowledge the face threat by expressing an apology for the imposition on her or by presenting a pre-established escape route for her (that is, she could say, “You know, I’m afraid it just isn’t possible”).

As this example makes clear, politeness is not always about deception. I may really be sorry I have to ask, even if the phrase itself is highly conventionalized. Politeness is more fundamentally about respecting the needs and wants of others, both in conversation and in life.

The WSJ article suggests that tee-ups are damaging our relationships, but I don’t think the anxiety is actually about the tee-ups—or conversational traffic signals, to use my analogy. The real concern at the heart of the article seems to be whether we’re using too many tee-ups because we’re saying too many unpleasant things to other people. Well, now that’s a different question. I agree that it is valuable to step back and ask yourself whether the potentially relationship-damaging thing you are about to say truly needs to be said. Often the answer may be no. But when it really does need to be said, a polite “verbal tee-up” that prepares your listener for what’s coming can be a kindness.

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