why it sometimes helps to soften your language in awkward situations

I make a point here of suggesting specific language for people to use in tricky situations — because I think often the language is the biggest sticking point for people. Sometimes you know that you need to deliver Difficult Message A or have Awkward Conversation B, but the hard part is figuring out exactly how to say it.

I make a point of suggesting language that I think people will feel comfortable saying and that will give them the best chance at the outcome they want, which generally includes not trashing their relationship with the other person.

Often that includes some kind of softening language. For example, in this post about a boss who’s an arm/shoulder toucher, I suggested saying,“Hey Bob, I’m weird about being touched on the arm or shoulder — I know you mean it warmly, but I’m just not a touchy-feely person.” Now, someone might argue that you shouldn’t have to say you’re weird for not wanting to be touched or to play it off like it’s your issue rather than his. And if we’re looking at it strictly logically, that’s true, and it’s certainly your prerogative to go with “do not touch me again” if that’s your style. But most people are going to find that pretty adversarial, and it’s likely to cause some tension in the relationship. Of course, you might argue that Bob is the tension causer, and you’d be right. But when there’s another option that will probably get the job done just as well while still preserving the relationship with someone you have to work with, I believe in starting there. You can always escalate from there if you need to.

And in addition to giving you a better chance at a good outcome (getting the behavior to stop and not causing tension in the relationship), this approach often makes it more likely that people will say something at all. Some people just absolutely will not say anything unless they can find language that they’re comfortable with. It can be the difference between “yes, that would work for me” or “there’s no way in hell I’d say that.” It’s no use for me to suggest language most people will never be willing to say. I’d rather they use a slightly softer message than not say anything at all.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the easiest, most effective route to getting the outcome you want, especially if that means that you speak up when you otherwise wouldn’t. Sometimes it won’t work and you’ll need to get more serious/tough/stern about it — but often you won’t even need to.

{ 157 comments… read them below }

  1. 12345678910112 do do do*

    Softening language is a great idea in most cases. However, if you are experiencing really uncomfortable or dangerous behavior, Gavin de Becker in “The Gift of Fear” emphasizes that you need to be very clear, very direct, and to not soften your language at all. If you’re encountering stalker behavior or feel unsafe, the best method is to confront that behavior head-on and tell, do not ask, the person to stop the specific behaviors that you find inappropriate.

    Thankfully, though, speaking to most situations can be done in the tactful way outlined by Alison.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I think this is where the difference between aggressive and assertive comes up. There are times where you need to be really aggressive when someone is way overstepping as with stalkers, etc. But most times, assertive with a soft touch will work just fine.

  2. Sharon*

    I tend to be terse, and especially when faced with a problem I’m inclined to try to describe it in very blunt terms to try to express the scale of the problem. It’s taking me years of effort to fully realize that I don’t need to use a sledgehammer to get my point across. I really appreciate when Alison (and y’all) offer potential scripts for things!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Some valuable insight right here. Sometimes people do not believe they will be heard so they come in with the sledgehammer right at the start. Not everyone needs sledgehammering. Confusingly, there are people that need a sledgehammer to hear some points some times but not other times.

      Once in a great while, I meet some one who has to bring a sledgehammer to every conversation, therefore, I bring mine, too.

    2. Sketchee*

      I’m with you there, Sharon. While I’m very friendly, I tend to like to be straight forward and honest. Honesty works way better with consideration and respect, so Allison has really taught me some great ways to express that. A lot of times, it’s just saying the actual good things I really know and believe. Some people really don’t know that I think they’re a good person, am not judging their self worth, and think their worthy of love. Just because I really do need them to do that thing they said they would do and have not yet done. =)

  3. Elizabeth West*

    I like to make a joke out of it, like “Space bubble!” when people get too close, etc. Of course, 12345678910112 do do do is correct, and so is de Becker. If someone is groping me on the train carriage, there is no polite. There is only Zuul.

    1. Elle*

      I like “space bubble!” It’s better than my usual “why are you standing so close to me? BACK OFF!!”

  4. Roscoe*

    Whats great about softening language is that often people will listen to your words more. I had an issue in the office a couple weeks ago with a female co-worker. I’m a very blunt, tell it like it is person and honestly I prefer to be talked to that way as well. She is not that way. In our argument, everything I said was, on its face, correct. However the language I used and the way I said it made it so she really didn’t “hear” what I was saying. She reacted to the words, but not the message. We later had a follow up conversation, where I essentially said the same thing, but in much softer language. She actually agreed with everything I said once she heard my message in a way that she was more receptive to.

    1. katamia*

      Interesting that you say that. I see a lot of people talk about this going the other way, where people who are more blunt can miss that things that sound like requests (“I’d appreciate if you would do X”) are actually orders. Do you have more details about why she didn’t seem to get your message with the blunter message? It seems to me like there’s less room for misinterpretation there.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think it’s about how if you’re too blunt/aggressive — to the point that it might come across as rude to someone with a different style — and don’t put enough thought into how your message will feel to the other person, the person can be so put off that they miss the legitimate substance of what you’re saying.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          If I feel that someone’s language is unnecessarily brusque or adversarial, my mind is distracted along multiple fronts. My first impulse is to think, ‘Wow, is there something I’ve done recently that merits this?”, because the only way I speak to anyone that way is if they’ve irritated me several times, so I’ll spend a few moments reviewing my recent interactions with them. Then, if I can’t think of any fault on my part, I spend time getting indignant about their manner of delivery and I don’t hear all of what they’re saying.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yes. I have documents that need to be regularly updated/amended with new info. Most people send me the info with some kind of “Can you take care of this when you get a chance? Thanks!” or etc. One guy, though, just forwards long email chains with a blunt “Fix this.” at the top.

            I do the updates in both cases because that’s my job, but I’m not a robot: I can’t say that I don’t find Fix This guy’s emails momentarily distracting, or that it hasn’t impacted our working relationship in general.

            1. TootsNYC*

              I’d have a similar reaction to “fix this.”

              But if he’d written “for you” or “your turn” it would be totally fine. I’d consider him brief, not bossy.

              1. Turtle Candle*

                Yeah, and it also depends deeply on personal context! I mean, I have a peer who I’ve been working with for years and years and years who will send these things with “Tag, you’re it!” or “One two three not it!”, which makes me smile as I dig in–but wouldn’t be appropriate from someone who I didn’t know well. And another coworker who’ll just forward with no comment at all, which I would find offputting from a newer peer, but in this case it’s very clear it’s a “we both know you know what to do” situation, and it’s not offensive.

      2. Roscoe*

        More or less she felt like I was being disrespectful toward her and just shut down instead of listening to what my problem actually was.

        1. Nonny*

          Sounds like my new boss. Ha. He’s very…nice. Extremely so. He softens his message to the point where he’ll say “If you get a chance, could you maybe look at X” when he really means “X is urgent, you need to get X done by COB”.

        2. NonProfit Nancy*

          100% agree. Somewhere I read (maybe on this site?) that some people are “task people” who are simply focused on the most efficient way of getting something done, while others are “relationship people” who are focused on the context of the interaction between themselves and their coworker. When a task person is extremely short and to the point with a relationship person, the latter starts spinning thinking, “what have I done/ why is this person so mad at me / how can I fix this,” and can’t even hear the actual message.

      3. DMC*

        I actually do think in this context, it’s best to say, “Please get me the report by X” if you’re someone’s boss, but you can say it nicely. Tone matters. I prefer that to “I’d appreciate it if….”, which can sound like an optional favor and not a priority. That’s different than “Don’t touch me” when it’s the first time you’ve brought that up to someone who is touchy feely.

        1. Sketchee*

          I’ve learned it’s so much easier for me to match someone else’s tone or translate what they say. Then to ever think they’ll ask or talk in the way I’d hope. If someone does ask “Do you have time to…” or “Would you be able to…”, I do give an honest answer if I have other priorities. Most people if they really do need what they’re asking will just rephrase.

          After a while, I’ve gotten to know some who simply will not ask for help. With those workers and clients, I do try to be more mindful that they’re trying to ask for help even if it comes across as very passive or overly aggressive.

      4. Banana Sam*

        I have a coworker who will say things like “we should probably do X.” It took me a year to figure out that what he really means is “I want you to do X.” There should definitely be a balance.

        1. Ad Astra*

          Oof, I had a boss who tended to ask, “Do you wanna do X?” when what he really meant was “Do X.” It got to the point that his (our) manager tried to put me on a PIP for insubordination because my direct manager was “telling” me to do tasks and then reporting back that I hadn’t done them. That, of course, was technically true — because I had taken his “do you wanna?” at face value as a suggestion or an offer, not a demand or even a request. (It didn’t help that a lot of these tasks were, in my view, either nonessential tasks or a bit outside my job description — so it really did sound like he was trying to help me fill my downtime or give me a change of pace.) It was really frustrating to find out that I’d amassed a huge list of unfinished duties and my higher-up managers had been fuming while I thought I was doing a good job.

          1. Sadsack*

            Did you answer him when he’d ask? If you answered yes and then decided not to do whatever it was without telling him, then I can kind of see why he thought that way.

            1. Ad Astra*

              Usually, I’d say something like “Yeah, I’ll see if I have time for that” or “Eh, I’d rather do Y instead because [reasons].” In hindsight, it does seem strange that this went on for weeks or months without me realizing that these were requests; I probably should have figured it out sooner. But, like I said, these were tasks that did not appear to be critical, and I was unaware that management was trying to shift my role from primarily social media/content management to more breaking news reporter/video producer. It really did sound like he was just spitballing a bunch of ideas (some of which I thought were not very good), since our function was basically the same and he was new to the organization. He was a good guy and had a lot of valuable skills, but there just wasn’t an authoritative bone in his body. His entire communication style was tentative and roundabout.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Just my two cents but your boss could have caught on also. When I supervised people if I did not see X getting done, I assumed it was my failure. I failed to frame it so the person understood I needed them to work on X. This happens fairly often, I think a boss should be able to go back in on that.
                For me, I would say, “I am sorry, I KNOW I was not clear. I was trying to say when you finish, A please start doing X.” If the person got embarrassed, I would explain there was no need, “You were doing what I asked you to do, not what I meant for you to do. I don’t expect anyone to mind read, this one’s my fault.” I had a group that had been psychology beat up by their former boss and I had to keep that in the forefront of my thinking.

          2. Turtle Candle*

            I had a boss who used these variations to indicate urgency. Something that absolutely had to be done and done soon would be phrased as, “Do X, please” or similar. “It’d be a good idea to do X” or “Do you want to do X?” or whatever meant ‘this probably ought to be done eventually, or at least would be nice, but there’s no particular urgency about it so let’s see if we have time/interest.’ But it would have REALLY screwed me up if she’d mixed them up, so that directives were phrased the same way as ‘it would be nice’ items!

        2. neverjaunty*

          Ugh, I hate this. And those people get very snippy when you come back with “yeah, we probably should” rather than volunteering.

      5. Dan*

        There’s many different ways of delivering a message. Talk about John, who frequently turns it work late:

        1. Message won’t get heard, too strong: ‘”John, you are ALWAYS late with work. I’ve about had it!”
        John: “I turned X, Y, and Z in on time, I’m not always late. What a moron.”

        2. Message too soft: “John, sometimes you’re late on projects, I need you to try a bit harder to meet deadlines.”
        John: Has no clue what the boss really wants.

        3. Message direct: “John, it’s important to meet deadlines, and I will be noting in your review that you missed deadlines for Projects X, Y, and Z.” Moving forward, I will need status updates every X weeks, and if you’re going to miss it, I need Y weeks notice to form a contingency plan and still deliver to the client on time.”

        I’m not necessarily saying that #3 is perfect phrasing, but it’s factual, no hyperbole, clear that it’s a problem, and a specific resolution is asked for.

        1. Nonny*

          Right. In your examples, #1 isn’t even telling the truth; it’s just overstating/exaggerating the problem.

    2. TootsNYC*

      People feel defensive really easily, and when they’re defensive, they close off, shut down, decide to completely disagree with you.

      Even if they UNDERSTAND your words, and approach that feels “attacking” will make them reject your argument. Even if they would have agreed with you.

    3. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      Kudos to you for being the “bigger” person and changing your style to match hers.

    4. Koko*

      Yes! This was one of the earliest lessons I ever got in the workplace. I was 15 years old and working at a certain underground-themed sandwich shop franchise. The franchise owners were a middle-aged couple who had immigrated from India, and I was too inexperienced to really know how lucky I was because they were wonderful managers. They ran a tight ship but they were always understanding, they listened to problems and tried to find constructive solutions to help us, and they were especially good at addressing errors. The woman in the couple told me, “When you yell at people, they don’t hear what you’re saying. They just hear yelling. We want to make sure that we’re heard, so we never yell.”

  5. neverjaunty*

    Agree completely that softening language is often effective, but really REALLY disagree that self-deprecating is the way to go, and is actually counterproductive, especially for women – it carries the message that you’re kind of weird and unreasonable but would this person please do the enormous favor of indulging you.

    1. Roscoe*

      As Alison said, different things work for different people. In general, some people like self depricating humor, some don’t. Just because its not the way you would do it, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

      1. Amy G. Golly*

        There’s a different side to the story than just personal preference, though. Women especially are often taught to minimize their own feelings and soften their opinions to accommodate others, and there’s plenty of business environments where that would put someone at a professional disadvantage. If it’s a situation where you have to put a lot of effort into being taken seriously, self-deprecating humor can certainly work against you.

        1. Roscoe*

          I suppose, but at the same time, it can salvage relationships. I’m not telling anyone what to do, I just don’t think that you should police how others choose to handle their issues just because you wouldn’t personally do it.

            1. Roscoe*

              Sure, its ironic in the same way you can say don’t judge someone you don’t know while thinking less of people who do that.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Exactly. I think we all get that it’s OK for different people to take different approaches, but that doesn’t make all approaches exactly equal or good in all situations. Self-deprecating comments, even funny ones, can convince people that you are in fact ‘touchy’ or ‘weird’ or ‘oversensitive’ or whatever the diffusing language is.

          1. Kay*

            Yes–in my own experience, I have learned to be careful with softening using self-deprecation. Saying things like, “I’m weird…” has sometimes set me up to have that used against me in the future. My boss has a tendency to ignore problems until they get out of hand, so for a while I tried framing it as, “Oh, well it would make me feel a lot better if we could take care of x before y program starts, otherwise I’m just going to worry about it. Can we think of some alternative solutions?” Not long after, she started using my “anxiety” to dismiss legitimate concerns I had about pretty much whatever.

        3. TootsNYC*

          But women are also working in a world in which they are judged negatively for not softening their opinions (or the expression of them).

          So they may pay a penalty. People are entitled to use the tools that get them what they want.

          I’m a fan of the idea of lots of us women being gradually less self-effacing, so that we train all of us out of the whole thing.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Shoot, I actually took out the paragraph that explained why I personally choose that but others don’t have to, like two minutes after this posted. (I have a terrible habit of doing a final edit right after something posts and realizing “no, I don’t like this” or “I want to add this.”) Anyway, I think that might be the piece you were responding to, so it’s here for context for others:

      Now, different people have different ideas of what softening language should be. Personally, I like going the self-deprecating route — “I have a weird thing about X,” “this might sound strange but …” and so forth. I don’t think it’s compromising anyone’s integrity to use those to soften a message that otherwise would be hard to deliver or create awkwardness. But sometimes people feel strongly that they shouldn’t have to say that their desire to avoid, say, someone who wants to talk two inches from their face is their own weird hang-up. And that’s fine too, of course.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Anyway, what I was saying is that I like it personally, but it’s not the only way to go. I think it just depends on your own personal style and what works for you. This one is probably sort of like women baking for coworkers — if you’re already seen as sort of a pushover, then yeah, probably don’t bake all the time. But if you’re not, then go for it. Same thing with self-depracating stuff, I think – and in fact, it can even be helpful to soften you a bit if you’re sometimes intimidating.

        1. TreeSilver*

          I agree with neverjaunty in this case – I believe it’s possible to use context-sensitive softer phrasing without choosing self-deprecating language, and I believe it’s critically important. Perhaps especially so in fields where women are already combating sexist perceptions, whether consciously or unconsciously held.

          In my case, I tend to engage people with “readback” techniques (e.g., “what I’m hearing you say is XYZ, does that reflect accurately?”) and collaborative-inclusive language. An example of the latter with the scenario described with Bob the shoulder-toucher might be, “Hey Bob, I know you mean it warmly, but I’d rather not be touched on the arm or shoulder. I appreciate your understanding. Thanks!” This language clearly expresses the speaker’s own preferences as valid and assumes good intentions and behavior on Bob’s part, framing them in alignment rather than in opposition.

          1. So Very Anonymous*

            Agreed. I’m in a situation where my being self-deprecating has made a difficult situation worse for me — I’m a woman in a heavily gendered “service” field dealing with a client department that treats me like fancy, magical equipment. Being self-deprecating just plays into an already bad situation (not to mention makes me look even weaker) and I’m having to figure out how to assert myself without resorting to language that makes it sound like “it’s probably just me, but…” Really appreciate TreeSilver’s framings here.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Sure. I have a bias toward it because it works for me, but that’s why I tried to emphasize people should choose what works for them.

              1. So Very Anonymous*

                Exactly! There’s definitely times and places for each. That’s something I’ve really learned in my current role. I have multiple client departments and they respond to different styles. It’s been educational (sigh) to see that with this one department, not being direct has now led to me having to figure out how to take a harder line.

          2. neverjaunty*

            This is excellent phrasing. (I mean, what’s Bob going to say, that he didn’t mean it warmly?)

            1. BenAdminGeek*

              That would certainly help clarify! “Listen, I’m actually trying to grope you here, was that not clear?”

          3. JB (not in Houston)*

            Yes, it’s possible, and yes, it’s important. But if Jane wants Bob to stop squeezing her shoulders, and the only way *Mary* would feel comfortable saying that to Bob is to be self-deprecating, then I 100% encourage her to do that. She can work on feeling more comfortable standing up for herself, and she should. But in the meantime, she can get Bob to stop touching her.

            Whether it’s right or not, some women will never, ever feel comfortable speaking up unless they go the self-deprecating route. And as a woman, I’d prefer they do that than to not speak up at all.

        2. Cath in Canada*

          I think it’s worth pointing out that the use of self-deprecating humour is more common in some cultures than in others. For instance, in my experience, someone from Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or (to a lesser extent) Canada is generally more likely to use it than an American or someone from mainland Western Europe.

        3. Turtle Candle*

          I had a situation where being self-deprecating was the only way I could figure out how to get a decent result.

          I was working telephone tech support, and I’d come to the unfortunate realization that a lot of the time when people said “I’ve already tried [basic troubleshooting step–rebooting, restarting the service, stuff like that] and it didn’t fix it,” they actually hadn’t done it, or at least hadn’t done it correctly. I mean, as much as 80% of the time, that was the case. And yet people who considered themselves tech-savvy would get really annoyed when I asked them to try it again anyway–argh, stupid support person, why are you making me do this thing I just told you I did! Sometimes they would outright refuse and we’d go through lengthy complex troubleshooting steps that turned out to be unnecessary or actively counterproductive.

          But I found that most people, even if they were totally positive that they’d already tried rebooting/restarting the service/whatever, would humor me if I said something like, “Hey, you know, I’m a little paranoid about missing something easy, so could you do me a favor and follow these steps really quick?” And then walk them through it. The people who were in the 20% of “rebooting actually didn’t fix it” were patient with it, and the 80% that actually hadn’t rebooted or hadn’t rebooted correctly or whatever got an immediate fix.

          On the other hand, if I made them do the checklist WITHOUT a self-deprecating intro, they got really pissy and sometimes just refused.

          It was like magic, how much a quick “Hey can you humor me in this weird thing?” turned around those conversations and got their computer fixed (and me off the phone).

      2. TootsNYC*

        I think it’ spossible to hit a middle ground. “I don’t like it” or “I have a thing about it,” without saying, “I have a WEIRD thing about it.”

        It’s my preference, but the implication is it’s a REASONABLE one.

        1. Alli*

          I agree. Why make yourself look like the one with the unusual issue when that’s not the case? It just reinforces to the offender that his behavior isn’t a problem for most people.

        2. Ad Astra*

          I would also suggest something like “I’m particular about this” if the word “weird” is what’s bugging you. Because that’s what it is — a relatively strong preference; reasonable, but not necessarily so universal that the other person should be expected to know this about you already. I think “particular” is a neutral term, unlike “weird” or “picky.”

    3. hbc*

      Except, of course they’re *already* going to think you’re weird. They are doing what seems to them to be a completely normal thing, or else they wouldn’t be doing it. Like if someone told me I needed to stand 6 feet away from them when talking because that’s their personal bubble, I’d be thinking, “Whoa.” But if they start out with the stipulation that this is *their* thing, I don’t start off feeling defensive about how I was a perfectly reasonable distance away.

    4. LBK*

      I’m a man so the gender dynamic aspect doesn’t really apply to me, but I wouldn’t be able to survive at work without self-deprecating language. One of the consistent pieces of feedback I got early in my career was that I came across as an egotistical know-it-all – even though I was usually right, the way I made corrections or raised points grated on people. Switching to self-deprecating language made a huge difference for me in that regard and now I use it constantly.

    5. Koko*

      I see where you’re coming from but I don’t actually think saying, “I’m weird about this,” has to be self-deprecating or accommodating/apologizing.

      It’s best used in those gray situations where what they’re doing would be fine with a certain context/intent/relationship, but not fine in other contexts. Rather than get bogged down in the nuance of why the context is wrong for what they’re doing, it’s easier to just say, “I know this is a thing other people are fine with, but I’m different. Yeah, haha, I know it’s weird, but that’s me! Thanks for understanding and not touching me.” It just makes things a whole lot more black-and-white so you can move on from the issue. Because it doesn’t matter if your wishes are weird or normal, they should still be respected.

      Of course I come at this as someone who doesn’t think “weird” is necessarily bad, just different, and I’ve always been able to confidently own the things I’m weird about and state them as fact rather than apologize or pretend I don’t have those unusual preferences.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah, I agree – I think depending on your personality and reputation, “I’m weird about ____” doesn’t always translate to “I am a weird person,” but rather “I’m someone who’s good at their job and part of what makes that work is that I’m particular about this thing.”

  6. Katie the Fed*

    Yes on all.

    When you make it about you, the other person is going to more receptive and you’re more likely to get a solution.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I think it’s less “when you make it about you” and more about “when you allow the other person to save face.”

      Sometimes that’s “it’s my own quirk” and sometimes it’s “you probably haven’t thought about how it’s perceived.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        And let’s face it, we only want the same in return. I allow you some slack to salvage a situation, I figure you will give me slack when I fall on my face.

        But there have been times where I cut people slack and then they make it rain in my life. No more slack.

  7. Zaralynda*

    As a feminist, I find myself doing a gut check every time I want to do the emotional work of making something not weird, especially if it’s deflecting blame for a situation from a man onto a woman.

    That said, I feel like sometimes we need to put aside our ideology and live in the real world. Is it feminist to shave my legs? It’s conforming to the patriarchy and we shouldn’t feel forced to do that. But, since our values are also shaped by the patriarchy, if I woman feels better shaving her legs, she should feel free to do so! Similarly, if a work experience will go smoother, feel free to use softening language. You live in this world, not the ideal world. Talk about how the ideal world would be, and act that way when possible, but also accept that this world is not ideal

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Is it feminist to shave my legs? It’s conforming to the patriarchy and we shouldn’t feel forced to do that. But, since our values are also shaped by the patriarchy, if I woman feels better shaving her legs, she should feel free to do so!

      Yeah, I find the policing of feminism to be counterproductive (and that goes both ways—1) “You’re not feminist if you do blah” and 2) “How can you say so-and-so isn’t feminist for doing blah? Anyone is feminist who is a woman. Anything a woman does is feminist because it’s her choice”).

      We all live in a culture or cultures (not a cultural vacuum) and our values are shaped by that/those. A lot of those values are patriarchal and wrong. But we also, whether in feminism or not, cannot do absolutely everything in our daily lives to absolve ourselves of blame or conformity. If you eat food or buy a smartphone or use money or hold a job in an economically powerful country, you’re probably contributing to upholding “the system.”

      We just have to make conscious and realistic choices that we feel, on the whole, serve to make the world a better place or subvert “the system” when we can.

    2. Turtle Candle*

      Yes re: living in the real world. The sad truth of the matter is that in a lot of cases I’m not going to get out of doing the emotional work; there is (or anyway, can be) emotional work in softening language. But there’s also emotional work in dealing with the added tension and potential fallout of not using softening language. If I’m super blunt and someone gets annoyed with me, the reality is that I have to live in a world where they are now annoyed with me, and usually I don’t have the luxury of saying “well that’s their problem”–I still have to work with them. So it helps me sometimes to think of it as an “ounce of prevention, pound of cure” thing.

      Would I rather live in a world where that emotional labor wasn’t going to fall disproportionately on my shoulders? Absolutely. But since it does, and I can’t opt out of living in a world where it does, the calculation is more complex.

        1. LBK*

          I am one of those men. I don’t even want to think about the hours of my life I’ve lost scrutinizing every single word of an email or carefully planning out how I’m going to say something. Hell, even here it can take me 20 minutes to write a 3-sentence comment. Being careful and thoughtful about word choice isn’t exclusive to women kowtowing in order to be heard. I’d actually argue that in general, great communicators of any gender are those who balance what they want to say with what’s going to get them the right result.

          And yes, sometimes that means kissing ass or talking yourself down, but that doesn’t mean you’re weak or compromising your values. I think it says more about the person you’re communicating with than you; it’s rarely a secret who needs to be handled with kid gloves and those people aren’t usually respected for it. By contrast, you can garner a lot of respect yourself by being the one who always manages to get through to notoriously difficult colleagues.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes. And it’s okay to decide that you’re going to take the way that’s easier for you this time rather than always having to fight sexism 100% of the time. And I’d argue that feeling like we have to evaluate all our choices through that lens is yet an additional burden on top of others, and it’s okay to say “this time, X feels right to me and that’s what I’m going to do.”

      Of course it’s important to be aware of big-picture stuff around how these dynamics can play out. But you can still be aware of “oh, this is a common pitfall that can sometimes trip women up” and still reasonably decide “but this action is the path that works best for me in this situation.”

      1. neverjaunty*

        Absolutely. The problem is when the short-term dynamics and the big picture come into conflict – if I tell Grabby Wakeen that I’m kind of sensitive about being touched, maybe that’s a simple way to get him to stop putting his hand on my shoulder, but in the long run does that give me the reputation of being oversensitive and touchy?

        I don’t think there’s any one easy answer or that everybody should take the (supposedly) Morally Right Way even if it’s counterproductive – just noting that it’s not always easy to balance softening language with the self-deprecating apologies and self-minimizing that are culturally expected of women especially and that can cause big picture issues.

        1. fposte*

          I also think that the more power you have, the less it hurts you. Which can be a difficult calculus to work out sometimes.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            I think that’s probably true. Certainly I think that my social capital isn’t hurt much at all by occasional self-deprecation, but then I have a ton of seniority and experience at my job. (Sufficiently so that I don’t have to police it myself much; on the rare occasion that I get an engineer who comes in with an attitude of “I don’t have to listen to her, she’s a woman from a non-technical field” the other developers are the ones to say, no, actually, she has experience, respect that.)

        2. Manders*

          I’ve actually had pretty good results from telling people “I’m sensitive about X” or “I’ve got a weird preference about X” or “I’m not in the mood for X right now.” I’m a very short and young-looking woman, and some people have been conditioned to believe that all short women want to be touched on the head or shoulders/hugged/picked up. A statement about my personal preferences is often what it takes for someone who believes this is normal to realize that different people *have* different preferences.

          Could I have made a sweeping statement about how they should never do X without asking? Sure, but I’ve found that doing that can make people double down instead of thinking about their unwanted behavior.

          1. BenAdminGeek*

            “all short women want to be touched on the head or shoulders/hugged/picked up”

            Sometimes the world baffles me. Not at all disputing that this happens, I just cannot fathom what goes through people’s minds. Then again, I had a coworker rub my head once because “bald guys hair is so funny”

      2. Golden Yeti*

        I kind of did both this week (fighting but indirectly). I did so because the person in question is a higher up (and new), so I wasn’t sure if it was really my place as a lower-ranked employee to correct. But at the same time, this person called me a “good girl,” and due to the many troubling implications of that (like Alison says here, the big picture), I ultimately didn’t feel right letting it slide, so I brought it up to management. Thankfully, they agreed with me and said they will address it, so I’m glad I didn’t chicken out.

        1. Zahra*

          “Good girl” elicits a “Woof!” from me, because it’s something you’d day to a dog, not a person. Not even a child. To a child, you’d say “You’re a good girl” or “You’re being a good girl”, but never (at least, in my opinion) just “Good girl”.

          1. Golden Yeti*

            Yeah, I had the same thought. And the way he said it was sort of like congratulating a puppy that just retrieved the paper. Besides saying, “You are a good girl,” he also said, “You are always good,” which was doubly disturbing, because it implies you are “good” when you do as you’re told–the favour he had asked of me that I did, my coworker pushed back on and ultimately did not do (which I guess in his mind would make her not “good”?). So yeah, it’s just bad all around. My hackles are still kind of up about it (along with a multitude of other related behaviours), to be honest.

            1. Hlyssande*

              Ooh, yeah. My hackles are up for you because that veers right into actual creepy territory for me.

      3. Ad Astra*

        I agree with all this, and I think it’s absolutely fine to think it all over and decide “Yes, I am going to do the emotional labor here.” The aim of pointing out emotional labor is, if you ask me, about identifying inequalities, identifying uncompensated or unrecognized labor. I think for many feminists it’s easy to fall into the mindset that all emotional labor = patriarchal BS, but that’s not really the case.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, agreed. I mean, in my friendships with other women we do a lot of mutual emotional labor. It’s not a bad thing, to do it, and it can make life more pleasant all around. It just becomes toxic when it’s expected or gets badly imbalanced.

          1. Snork Maiden*

            I figure, emotional labour is like housework. Like you said, it’s toxic if unacknowledged and/or imbalanced. At the same time, we all have to do it, and the results do make everything run smoothly. And if you have enough money you can just pay other people to do it for you!

  8. Anna No Mouse*

    My husband is a very blunt person naturally, and often finds himself in situations where he knows he should soften his language but really doesn’t know how. That’s where having a wife who is a writer and good at reading people and situations comes in handy. I believe that the first time something potentially awkward is being discussed, it’s better to use softer language. Of course, if someone isn’t getting the point, a more direct approach may be called for.

    1. KTB*

      I concur, as I’m in a similar relationship. My husband can be quite blunt when he does speak (read: total introvert), and gets frustrated when he’s misunderstood. I have frequently helped him edit important communications like job negotiations, emails to his boss, etc., when he knows that his first response isn’t likely to elicit the response he wants from the other person.

      OTOH, I learned the softer approach lesson myself last year when I was at a conference and found out that my client’s boss didn’t necessarily appreciate me taking the reins in partner meetings and redirecting the conversation when necessary. We eventually sorted it out, but between his comments about my “forcefulness” and asking me when I am having kids, it definitely reeked of a certain old school sexism.

      1. ancolie*

        I’m confused at

        My husband can be quite blunt when he does speak (read: total introvert)

        I don’t see how “blunt” and “introvert” are related at all? Bluntness seems to be everywhere along the *vert scale (just like its opposite).

        1. pieces of flair*

          I think the introvert part relates to “when he does speak” implying that he rarely speaks at all.

    2. Gene*

      Early on, I told my (now) wife that I don’t take hints, I don’t acknowledge hints, and even if I do catch one on the way by, I’ll likely ignore it as just a passing thought of hers, not something she wants done. If someone wants me to do something, ask (or, if necessary tell) me to do it. We will be married 19 years this year and guess what? She still throws hints at me and gets upset when I miss them.

      Similar with my boss, whom I’ve had longer than the wife. I told him the same thing shortly after I started here; it took a few months, but we understand each other. If there’s something he needs done and wants me to do it, all he has to do is ask or tell me.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I get that people need to adjust, but I think you need to be adjusting as well.
        Bosses don’t hint; that hint wasn’t a hint, as someone upstream pointed out.

        Sure, you’re literal. You need to stretch your comprehension, just as much as anybody else needs to adapt to you.

        1. AnonAcademic*

          I have to agree here…the boss may have an easier time issuing orders because that’s his job. As a spouse I don’t like the feeling of bossing my husband around and a lot of what gets called “hinting” is just requests with softer language. And can you really command someone to, say, buy you the birthday gift you want? That feels rude and demanding, whereas saying “wow, that style of cashmere sweater I like is on sale and I have a birthday coming up” or “that new restaurant looks great” is providing information intended to inform someone’s free action. I think that insisting only on hinting is probably not a great approach, but fully refusing to acknowledge any thoughts that come in “hint” packaging is also going to be limiting.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah; while I get that hints can be annoying, if I say “The trash is getting full” and my husband ignores that until I actually say “Please take out the trash,” I’m going to find that annoyingly literal. (And at the worst, I’m going to start to wonder if it’s a way of trying to manipulate me into just taking out the damn trash myself rather than having to nag.)

          1. Not So NewReader*

            This. We are wives, not army sargents. Just as one spouse can have difficulty reading hints, the other spouse can have difficulty instructing a peer to do something. I do not think one difficulty here trumps the other difficulty. To say “My difficulty understanding hints trumps your difficulty of telling me what to do” puts the other spouse in an awkward situation of playing a role they may not want to play.

            Suppose the garbage needs to be emptied three times a week. That is three times each week the other spouse is forced into a role s/he does not want. Now multiply this by the incredible number of household chores there are and see that other spouse is playing this undesirable role dozens of times a day, 365 days a year. Add to that, after 20 years of cohabiting it is no longer a surprise that the garbage needs to go out three times a week, it has become a predicable pattern. After that length of time, I tend to think that it’s a visual and no words are necessary.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              This reminds me of some research I was reading a while back (and sadly I do not have a link) about the truism that “men don’t understand a soft ‘no,’ so you have to be blunt.” The research indicated that men were perfectly capable of understanding a soft ‘no’ in the workplace from their bosses, so it clearly wasn’t simply that men were socialized to not understand indirect no. Rather, it was that people of all genders see a soft ‘no’ as firm when it comes from a social superior, and negotiable or ignorable when it comes from a social inferior… and some men are accustomed to treat women in general as ‘social inferiors.’ (Women have the same dichotomy where they hear a no as firm from a superior and flexible from an inferior, but are less likely to be socialized to see the other gender as social inferiors.)

              It’s still often useful to use a blunt ‘no’ when dealing with harassing behavior, if only because it makes it easier if you can say “yes, I said clearly and unambiguously that the attention was unwanted” when talking to HR or the police or whatever. But the idea that men are just not able to hear a soft no is false; it’s just that many of them are socialized to feel free to ignore it in some situations. Or in other words: people treat a ‘no’ as negotiable if they think they can get away with it, and (in general, socially) men are socialized to expect to get away with it with women.

              I actually found this reassuring, even though it didn’t change my behavior, because I’d always been a bit uncomfortable with the rhetoric of “well you were Too Nice when you said no so he couldn’t really hear it.” No, he could, he just thought he could ignore it! And while saying a firmer ‘no’ might be useful to me, it’s not that the poor confused dude just didn’t understand and was misled by my softness of tone.

            2. myswtghst*

              Totally agreed. If the “hinting” spouse is really truly doing it in a way which flies right over the head of the “direct” spouse, then yes, it would be beneficial for the “hinting” spouse to be more direct. But if the “direct” spouse is hearing (and understanding) the hints and just disregarding them because they’d prefer more direct language, then the “direct” spouse is the one who needs to change their behavior.

  9. preaction*

    I’ve found this helps when I get angry. It may not solve why I’m angry, but it at least won’t make things worse by revealing how angry I am (whether it’s justified anger or not, since that’s always lost to history). Thinking about neutral ways to phrase things gives me time to cool down and consider other possible sides of the story.

  10. Katie the Fed*

    I will add though that softening in discussions with subordinates can come back to bite you. I have to be uncomfortably direct in those discussions.

    1. Thursday*

      How so? Do they mistake your requests for suggestions as another commenter pointed out above?

      1. Colorado CrazyCatLady*

        I think it would also compromise their position of authority to an extent and also make their requests unclear. My boss is someone who tries to soften everything and I always have to ask him for clarification.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        Sometimes they don’t even hear the bad part. They will ONLY hear the part where you said “you’re doing really well overall, but….” Most people have a hard time hearing criticism. I’m one of them. It does help to focus on the work or behavior and not the person. So “your work has had lots of mistakes lately – what’s going on” is better than “you’re not paying enough attention to detail.”

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yes, from the other end. I respond much better to this. A blunt “You aren’t paying attention” would make me feel attacked. Also, “what’s going on” gives me a chance to bring something up if there is a problem and I’ve been unsure how to tell you.

          1. Felicia*

            I also don’t like “You’re not paying attention to detail” because that’s a bit like a personal motivation my boss can’t possibly know. “Your work has a lot of mistakes” is a factually accurate thing he can know, but he can’t just assume the reason. Maybe I was trying very hard to pay attention to detail, but failing for whatever reason.

            It’s sort of like the only time I ever cried at work, though at least I got to the bathroom for privacy. My boss said about a project “You just didn’t try very hard.” But I did, in fact I tried especially hard, more than I normally do even, so that just said to me, I tried my best and I still failed. Plus I was upset that he was judging my effort which he had no way of knowing.

      3. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        I can’t speak for others, but when I first dipped my toes into management years ago, I was taught a specific model to provide feedback:

        I see, I think, I feel, I want.

        IOW, every conversation I was supposed to have was supposed to include these elements for feedback: I see you do x instead of y, I think there may be a disconnect, I feel perhaps you are struggling and I want you to find help with y.

        It was so so stilted and so so uncomfortable. I found myself tripping over the model and not focusing on what I needed to say, and the entire time my brain was telling me to just get to the freakin’ point. I’m sure the employee I was talking to felt the same way.

        Eventually, I woke up and realized that the model didn’t work for me and that if it didn’t work, I could decide to discard it. So I did. I spent time being too direct, but have eventually gotten to the balance of describing what is needed in a straight-forward, clear, tactful way.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I used to literally lose sleep over having these conversations with employees. But I’m so used to it now, and I try to do it as soon as I see a problem cropping up. Usually if I do it early, it’s a small course correction than a Major Conversation. I find it less stressful now overall.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I think this is so important–to address things very early.
            It keeps you from stewing and making int o a bigger deal than it is. And it doesn’t seem so “ye gods, I’ve been doing it for so long and NOW you’re bringing it up?”

          2. Not So NewReader*

            This is true, too. We have to train our brains. And we also have to learn which actions work into a big problem later and therefore are a big deal now. So when we see an employee doing X and X causes huge problems later, we learn to speak NOW rather than wait.
            Situations that are a big deal right in the moment are clearer to process in some ways.

  11. TT*

    I feel like this is almost a daily balancing act, and it’s hard for me to really think through it without considering. gender/race/ethnicity/etc. By nature, I am fairly direct. I love to receive feedback this way, but I’ve noticed that others really prefer a softer approach, which I’m happy to provide. I’m not a meanie.

    However, what I’ve noticed as someone who is frequently 1) the only woman in the room, 2) the only person of color in the room is that 3) people can really suck. Seriously. The consideration that I give for others can QUICKLY be used against me, especially at times when I’ve used self-deprecating humor or language. On the other hand, it’s never in my best interest to point out the idiot or boundary breaker. Learning to find balance has been helpful, but it can be really exhausting.

  12. techfool*

    My boss softens his language much more than I do. He’s male and I’m female. He’s a trial lawyer.
    I’m working on softening mine. It’s a skill both men and women need.

  13. DMC*

    I think the real gem of the advise here is that it’s often better to start out with softer language and you can always ESCALATE the language if the soft style doesn’t work. However, starting out the gate with something like, “Don’t touch me” is, realistically, likely to spawn a more adversarial relationship. If the soft style doesn’t work, then it’s perfectly reasonable to go with sterner language. I think even in the gift of fear that makes sense. The example in that one that I remember was a rapist trying to get a woman to let him help her with groceries. You can say NO nicely once (since, frankly, someone might just be trying to be nice with no criminal intent), but if that doesn’t work, then it’s time to be firm and say, “I said No. Thank you, but no” in a firm, no nonsense voice and hold your ground.

    1. Ad Astra*

      This really resonates with me, possibly because I’ve always been kind of sensitive. Like, as a child, being reprimanded or corrected hurt my feelings and being put in timeout made me believe that my parents didn’t love me anymore. Usually, I use this example to explain why spanking or some of the vaguely humiliating punishments people use with children would have been total overkill with me.

      It’s the same way when someone immediately goes to “Don’t touch me!” without employing the softening language first. It’s very easy for me to feel embarrassed and defensive when I get negative feedback, either professional or socially. And that’s going to make it tough for me keep working with someone amicably. If you truly feel you’re in danger, then it doesn’t really matter how that other person feels. But at work, we’re usually in a situation where preserving the relationship is important, and that means avoiding overkill when you’re correcting someone’s behavior.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        There’s lots of people like you out there, you’re not alone. I have found that I can go with, “You know, I did the same darn thing once and here is how I fixed it.” That goes over quite well, usually. I know I respond well when people come in on this same plane with me, when I have made an error. ;)

    2. Turtle Candle*

      Yes! When you start at the bluntest, there’s nowhere to go. And if you’re generally a softener of your language, there’s a certain power to it when you break out the blunt statement. (For example, since I usually would say something like, “Hey, I have a big personal space bubble, so could you take a step back?” or etc., it’s notable on the occasions when I say a flat “Step back and don’t touch me.”)

      1. OhNo*

        I agree. Especially for someone like me, who jokes around a lot and has a very dry sense of humor, having that blunt language to fall back on is a really good way to indicate, “No I’m not joking, I’m actually 100% serious about this.”

        Starting out on that level would make me seem way more harsh than I usually come across, and would probably imply that some egregious boundary has been violated, when in reality the person is probably just doing something I don’t like very much.

        1. Gene*

          When I’m teaching sailing, I tell each group that I usually don’t raise my voice beyond what is needed to be heard above wind/flogging sails/etc and I joke quite a bit. But if I ever yell, do exactly what I’m telling you to do and do it NOW! We can talk about it after.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            There’s a whole different set of rule when in crisis. Even with pushing out rush orders, people will talk to each other in ways they ordinarily would not use.
            But if a work place is in constant crisis it can turn nasty all the time.

  14. DMC*

    And, by the way, I find this to be especially true with e-mail communications. In emails, I tend to be very matter of fact (well, I’m that way with verbal communication, but at least in person folks can see my expression – on the phone and in email I have at times come off as terse). I’ve actually found myself writing an email then going back before I hit “send” to add some niceties to the beginning, such as “Happy Monday!” before getting into the details of business. On the phone, I’m making more of an effort to start off with things like “How was your weekend?” when before I’d just get straight to business. I think it’s making a difference. So, yes, softer language all around, but especially when one is on the phone or using email – at least for me.

    1. Colorado CrazyCatLady*

      I do the same thing. I write my entire email the way I normally would and then go back in and add all the “I hope you had a nice weekend,” and “Have a good day.” There are some people who seem to respond to this better, so I make more of an effort with them.

    2. ancolie*

      I’m the exact opposite! :D I write an email and then I edit out all of the (many, many) unnecessarily solicitous circumlocutions so it’s down to a normal level of politeness and personable.

      (For the record, I’m the kind of person whose first impulse when emailing a request is something like, “Hi (Name), I just wanted to ask if you would be able to do (favor) for me. I know you’re super busy so I totally understand if it’ll take a little bit! Or if you can’t do it at all, that’s okay, too; just let me know.”. There’s a whooooooole ocean of possibilities between that and, “(Name), I need (favor).”)

  15. Sue Wilson*

    I tend to not soften my language at all, but just treat the situation as if it was a completely normal one/as if I were saying “Could you please pass the X.” and then move on. “Could you please stop touching me?” “Thanks! So the new report on Y…” Even with pushback. “But I’m not doing anything wrong!” Okay, but I need you to stop touching me. Thanks!”

    It helps deescalate any awkward, because I don’t indicate that it’s awkward, and it helps defuse defensiveness because there’s nothing they can hang that emotion onto.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I do like this–you can just be matter-of-fact. And SHORT!

      More words sound like a lecture. Just mention it.

    2. OhNo*

      Very true! Refusing to acknowledge any awkwardness can definitely cut down on the defensiveness of whoever you’re talking to. From being on the receiving end of this, I can say that it feels much less awful just because your feelings of awkwardness are allowed to stay internal. When no one acknowledges the awkward, I can pretend everything is a-ok, respond like a normal human being, and just cringe a little inside at whatever dumb thing I did. Openly acting like the situation is awkward makes it feel like it’s super obvious that I’ve done something wrong, not only to the participants in the conversation but to everyone that happens to glimpse the discussion, and to everyone who sees me interact with those people for the rest of the day. It makes me feel like I have to be defensive to cover up whatever dumb thing I did, rather than just being allowed to deal with it internally and move on.

      Basically, refusing to acknowledge the awkward is a really good way to let people save face. That’s not always something you’re worried about, but when you are it’s quite effective.

      1. TootsNYC*

        The best “bedside manner” I ever encountered was when I was crying at the doctor’s in frustration during a long conversation about Annoying Medical Condition and many possible pathways forward.

        My doctor said, “If I were you, I’d be crying to,” and handed me a tissue box, and continued to speak as though I wasn’t crying.

        It was a bit of a revelation how comforting that was. He trusted me to be able to deal with my own emotions.

        So yes, sometimes just blithely ignoring the emotional or social awkwardness is really useful.
        Kind of, “It won’t get better if you pick at it.” So, don’t “pick at it.”

        Again–it’s about saving face. “Oh, no, this isn’t awkward, I don’t think ill of you, we’re not having a clash or anything.” So the person you’ve “corrected” can save face.

    3. Doriana Gray*

      I do the same thing, Sue Wilson. No softening language or tiptoeing around, just a direct request with a please and a smile thrown in somewhere (the smile and “please” work as softeners IMO).

  16. SirTechSpec*

    Alison, as one of the people who’s sometimes uncomfortable with the soft language you suggest, I think this is a great post. I also really appreciate that, when it’s applicable, you usually take a moment for the “Of course, you shouldn’t *have* to do this, but…” disclaimer. It doesn’t change the sucky situation, but it at least provides validation that yes, it’s the other person making things weird, not the OP, and the response is in that context, even if you choose pragmatism over ideals (and, as others have pointed out above, ideals can be pretty expensive, especially in situations where there’s a power differential.)

    But just as importantly IMO, it’s a reminder to everyone else (especially us more privileged folk) how things ought to work. Like, “BTW, if you ever find yourself on the other side of this situation, pay attention and be reasonable – don’t make your employees/coworkers get to the point where they have to say this, and if you see someone in this situation, be supportive.”

  17. Kay*

    I work for an always-blunt boss, and her style has taken some getting-used to. We also have a *very* sensitive administrative support staff member who frequently softens requests to the point that I have to interrupt her (she’s a repeater, so this is midway through the second time through), “I don’t follow what you’re saying. What do you want me to do?” The two of them together in a conversation has produced some comedy gold, with my boss shouting “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” or “WHO ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??” Basically what I’m saying is I think you can take this too far in either direction and pretty much like Alison said, use what works for your circumstances.

    1. myswtghst*

      I work with someone who uses a lot of (really incomprehensible) analogies and metaphors, and generally tends to talk in circles. It was so gratifying a few weeks ago in a meeting to have both his boss and one of his peers say something along the lines of “That makes no sense. What are you even trying to say?” since I’m not sure I could have done the same (based on seniority) but have often wanted to!

  18. Ad Astra*

    These are all great points. People, especially women, are often warned not to use softening language to diminish their own contributions — which is perfectly good advice. But when part of your objective is to preserve another person’s feelings or dignity, softening language makes all the difference and costs you nothing. And Alison doesn’t mention it specifically in this post, but you can kind of see how the arm/shoulder touch response assumes good intent. That has been key for me in delicate conversations where it would be easy for the other person to feel defensive.

    Also, while it isn’t truly weird to be a no-touchy sort of person, it is a very personal, individual preference — in the same way that I am very much NOT a mayonnaise person (thus, “weird about” mayonnaise). When it comes to physical contact (and condiments, and lots of other things in life), the range of reasonable, easily accommodated preferences is pretty wide. “I’m weird about this” serves as sort of a shorthand for “I fall on this particular side of the spectrum and feel strongly enough about it to bring it to your attention.”

    1. neverjaunty*

      The problem is that it’s sometimes not true that softening language “costs you nothing”. Obviously it’s a balance, and there’s no one right way to do things. I’m just really baffled by what seems to be the prevailing view that self-deprecation and bending over backward always produces good results and never bad ones.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agree to disagree, I suppose, but I just don’t buy that there’s a cost to it in every situation. In some, absolutely. Not in all.

      2. Colette*

        I don’t see anyone saying that. What people are saying is that starting a conversation softly (possibly using self-deprecating humour) may get you the result you want while preserving the relationship, and that you can always use a harsher response if it doesn’t work.

        If you start from the presumption that the other person is 100% wrong and you are 100% right, they may decide you’re so unreasonable that you have no valid points, or they may decide to minimize how much they deal with you at all. And it’s not just the one person – it could affect your reputation in the eyes of any bystanders.

        1. LBK*

          Yes, exactly. There’s generally no downside to *starting* with softer language, and there’s usually more pros than cons of doing that versus starting with harsh language.

          I also think neverjaunty is thinking mainly about extreme contexts (like telling someone who’s harassing you to back off), which comprise only a small portion of times when this advice is applicable. I have situations every day where softened language is appropriate – mainly when I think something is wrong and I have to question someone on it.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I sense a tendency to look for a one size fits all answer, but I have seen that with other discussions, too. Eh, it’s human nature to want to nail things down.
        There are variables that need to weigh in:
        Relationship- peer-to-peer or subordinate to boss or boss to subordinate?
        Personality- are you talking to the work place bully or are you talking to a known reasonable person?
        Importance- Does this person really need to understand? Will this person try to understand? Is this a hill to die on?
        Longevity-how long have you been in the field or with this company?
        Culture- basically nice people or more like piranha?
        Workflows- slow, moderate, fast, hyper-fast?
        Urgency- five alarm fire or do it before the year is over?

        In short if your gut says, you need to put your foot down right away then that is probably what you have to do. If you have time to debate the approach to the situation, then you probably can use a softer approach and change gears if you see the softer approach does not work.

  19. Transformer*

    I think this is much like the golden rule. If someone wanted to give me the feedback I am about to give, how would I like to hear that message? What would make me most receptive? Also, I want to assume that everyone around me has the best of intentions unless they prove otherwise. When I hear someone use an aggressive message, I generally rephrase it and say “what I hear you say is XYZ (phrased much softer but giving the most grace and assuming the best intention for all sides).” I think this helps other people put themselves in the other persons shoes, especially when they may not have the tools or forethought to thoroughly think through how their message will be be received in the heat of the moment. I think that Ad Astra and Roscoe had great insights into this earlier in the comments.

    I personally LOVE LOVE LOVE the way that Alison phrases all of her responses as I think that her management style allows the people around her to grow and encourages collaboration. Its the emphasis on improving relationship that fosters this collaboration and I think this article gets to the heart of intention and what makes a manager a good manager in my world.

  20. YogiJosephina*

    A tactic that I’ve found always works for me is to automatically assume that anything that comes from my boss, no matter how gently or softly worded or even if it’s framed as a suggestion, is an order. Period, full stop. I kind of just go into it with that mindset. “I think it’d be helpful if you do this” is “I want you to do this.” “It might be a good idea to try that” is “do that.” Listen to what they’re “suggesting,” and just completely disregard that it’s a suggestion. Treat it as an order. “I’m not going to say you HAVE to do this, but you might want to try…” is “I’m saying you HAVE to do this.”

    I’ve found it to be pretty failsafe. I actually can’t recall a time where I wasn’t correct that what they were “requesting” was actually mandatory. If you can kind of reframe the ideology as “there’s no such thing as a ‘suggestion’ from a superior,” you might be able to avoid a lot of miscommunication.

    At least, that’s what’s worked for me. YMMV.

    1. Shortie*

      I completely agree. I have always done this.

      And in jobs or times when I’m too busy to do everything that’s suggested, I’ll say something along the lines of, “Great, I’ll work on that after I finish, X, Y, and Z. Is that the right priority order?” Sometimes the boss will respond yes, sometimes no-this-new-thing-is-the-top-priority, and sometimes what-are-you-talking-about-that-was-just-a-suggestion-not-necessary-don’t-worry-about-it.

      Regardless, it gets me the clarification I need. But if I have time, suggestions always = commands.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I have found that is the safest way to play it, especially if I am in doubt. I assume that X needs to be done and needs to be done soon.
      I do think that a wise boss is aware that good employees will bust their backs to do what she requests, therefore she is careful about what she asks for.

  21. Meliora*

    I think the power differential is an important aspect. Softening will look different if you are talking to a boss, a subordinate, a peer that you need things from, or someone you incider tally interface with. I would personally be nuch less likely to self deprecate to a boss than a peer. And there may be a case that when talking to a subordinate you risk confusing a message if you soften more than necessary. And got that matter I would think that that relationship would have essentially less give and take assumed so while softening might be necessary or helpful, I would assume people would take a little more responsibility for figuring out what a boss was “really saying” over a coworker or incidental contact who might just ignore the message content and chalk up your statement to “they are just having a bad day” based on tone and not caring that much.

  22. VX34*

    Language is absolutely critical when it comes to effective communication.

    I once moderated a to-the-point-of-coming-to-blows dispute between two guys in an artistic endeavor I was a part of a few years back. They each literally spent time together spewing venom at one another any time a disagreement came up. One guy was a real piece of work, but the other was not a candidate for sainthood by any stretch.

    I had separate conversations with each of them, in which I put forth the opposing guy’s viewpoints…without using any of the vicious personal attacks. And each of them ended up more or less completely agreeing with me, and by extension the other guy, once that happened.

    The way we say things, whether it’s in person, or through email, or text message, the way a message is communicated is vital to the reaction we get. So many people are either ignorant of that, sometimes by choice.

    When it comes to communication from superiors, however, which seems to be a separate but related discussion…be forthright, period. If you want someone to do something, tell them. Don’t demand it, but direct it if needed. If my current boss makes a suggestion, she actually usually tells me with language that makes it clear that something is a true suggestion, or open to my interpretation. One of the biggest stressors about working is not actually knowing what your boss wants you to do, even after being “told” what to do.

  23. FTW*

    Softening is always my approach. The big lebowski says it best…

    The Dude: No, you’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an asshole.

  24. 30ish*

    Something that, if I haven’t missed it, hasn’t been mentioned much in this thread, but that seems important to me: It’s not necessarily about watering down the message to make it more palatable, but rather about wrapping up the message nicely so it doesn’t cut (as much).
    Sometimes you can soften things with your body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc., without changing your wording. For example, I tend to make clear requests and don’t use self deprecation but I try to generally be friendly, and start and end the interaction on a positive note. I think – although it really grates that we have to pay more attention to this than men – that a friendly demeanor is overall helpful for women and can let you get away with a lot more straightforwardness.

  25. Zulu*

    Alison – just curious if you’ve read “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson since many of your posts, including this one, seem to reflect the general philosophy behind the book. One of their basic points is that people rarely have an issue with what you say (content), but they have an issue with how you say it (tone).

    If you haven’t read this book, you should – and so should all of your readers! I read it for a leadership development program at work and it totally transformed the way I interact with, and interpret, coworkers (and family and friends outside of work too).

  26. SunnyLibrarian*

    This so much. When I was younger and more inexperienced, I would think that saying things bluntly was a great idea. I was probably one of the people that a lot of people write in about.

    You are going to be with these people several hours a day, so it’s best to learn how to get along with them even though it may feel great in the moment to tell someone to stop touching you.

  27. ivy*

    I’ve always appreciated that with your responses you’ve almost always given a script. You’re right–the how to say it is really hard sometimes. I’m also young, so it’s fantastic to get an example of what kind of language is good to use, acceptable, etc.

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