Harness the Power of Powerless Language

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powerful vs powerless speech

As women, we often are victims of prejudice in the workplace. If we say what we mean, what we want, or what we know, we get labelled as a b!@%*. If we soften our language, we tend to get trampled all over.

Hedges Are Powerless Language

When we hedge our language, we are using an aspect of powerless language. The anithesis of powerless language is powerful language.

Unfortunately, too many times I’ve heard powerful language attributed to the way men speak and powerless language to the way women speak. I feel that these associations are not prescribed based on the way we actually talk, but rather based on the way our society continues to view us.

Examples of hedges in powerless language are, “I think,” “seem to,” and “possibly.” The standard argument is that they weaken our language and invite people to doubt us or our credibility.

Powerless Speech Can Be Powerful

While this can sometimes be true, some of the greatest persuasive speakers ever used what we label “powerless language” to get their points across. Think Benjamin Franklin and Plato’s version of Socrates. They didn’t call it powerless language, though.

They called it eironeia.

These men had learned early on that being brash was not going to get them anywhere. They had brilliant minds, but no one was going to hear what they had to say if their arguments were cocky and left no room for any error by the speaker.

Cockiness and arrogance tend to make people solidify their original opinion rather than change it.

Powerless Language Changed Benjamin Franklin’s Life

Using eironeia changed Benjamin Franklin’s life. People started listening to and respecting him, which opened up the many career paths he was able to successfully pursue.

Here are some words  he suggested throwing out the window in his autobiography:

  • obviously
  • of course
  • inevitably
  • undoubtedly

These words tell the person you’re talking to that if they disagree with you they are a moron. When you make someone feel like a moron, they’re not likely to agree or ever want to deal with you again.  This is true not just when it’s a woman speaking the words, but a man, too.

Franklin replaced these powerful words with powerless hedges. Some examples he gave are eerily similar to the words we’re told to avoid as they’re powerless or “too feminine.”

“I convcieve,” or “I apprehend,” are an eighteenth century way of saying, “I think.”

Though if the language register in your situation were high enough, Franklin’s words verbatim could still be appropriate today.

Another of his examples, “It appears to me…” is essentially the same thing as saying, “It seems…”

His example of “…it is so if I am not mistaken,” could be replaced by the single word, “possibly.”

Give Powerless Language Legs to Stand On

Franklin always backed up his hedges with good arguments and solid facts. If we say, “I think you did the numbers wrong,” we’re not going to get a very good response.

However, if we change our language we can still use a hedge, come across as professional, and not make people hate us:

I think there may be an error in the numbers.  I’m looking at the district’s sales for February and they don’t seem to match this chart.”

We’ve used hedges–“I think,” “may be,” and “don’t seem”–and we’ve presented facts.  We’ve removed the negative judgement on our subject by focusing on the error in the work, not the person who made the error.

We can rage on in our head, “I know that you are incompetent!” But while those words may fall into the powerful category, they are not an effective way to problem solve in a work environment regardless of your gender.

Avoid Low Register Hedges

There are still some hedges you should avoid. Avoid anything that doesn’t sound professional. Things like, “I’m sort of busy right now,” or, “I’m kind of disappointed in the quality of your work,” might be phrases you would use with friends, but are inappropriate for the work place.

They don’t diminish your language because they are powerless; they can be used just as effectively as the other hedges we looked at above, but only if you’re using them in the right setting. The language register at work is higher. Period. Even if you wear jeans and a tee.

Powerless language–like femininity–can be powerful.

The next time someone tells you powerless language is completely ineffective and feminine, encourage them to read Franklin, Plato, and Socrates. Used properly, a little powerless language can go a long way in influencing others and gaining the respect of your coworkers and superiors.

12 thoughts on “Harness the Power of Powerless Language

  1. Alexa

    I think this type of language can go very far. It does prevent you from coming off as a bitch. You can say what you mean without insulting someone and I think that is the best route to go to be respected and appreciated.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Agreed! And I love your use of hedges! 🙂 Brownie points to anyone who can identify all the many ones I used outside of quotation marks.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Strong personalities are awesome, as long as we bridle them so that we play well with others. And that goes for men or women! It’s a more difficult line for women to walk, though, when you account for the way we are judged.

  2. E.M.

    I always try to use this kind of language when I am training someone and they make a mistake. I know how horrifying it can be to hear you’ve done something wrong, so I try not to focus on their mistake centrally, but what seemed to go wrong.

    There are only three girls in our office and often I feel like we can’t speak freely without being seen as overdramatic. It’s not a fun place to be. No matter how many times our bosses tell us they have open doors, nothing ever seems to come of our conversations.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      When you talk about your boss not hearing you, are the things you’re bringing to him problems or ideas? Either way you gender should not garner you any disrespect. Just trying to get a better idea of what’s going on to see if there’s anything I might be able to say to help.

  3. anna

    Great post!! I agree that someone who is calmer and speaks in a productive manner conveys their thoughts more effectively than bad-tempered, critical folks. Interesting point about “sort of” and “kind of” – you still want to be assertive when conveying your thoughts, not wishy-washy or passive.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Exactly. And sometimes people don’t even realize how bad-tempered or critical they’re sounding! In a professional setting, professional language is critical to garnering respect. “Sort of” and “kind of” just don’t fit. A lot of powerless language is wishy-washy, but hedges don’t have to be.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Oh, so true. I’m partial to hedges. But here’s all the types of powerless language I’m not partial to: extraneous modifiers, hesitations/fillers, up-talk, and unnecessary polite forms.

  4. Mr. Utopia @ Personal Finance Utopia

    Insightful article – most of us (men included) oftentimes “shoot from the hip” when speaking and don’t necessarily vet our words ahead of time. When composing written message, we have the opportunity craft our words more carefully. I use hedges all the time, but you do have to be careful even when backing them up with facts/stats. I’ve been told I come off too as too undecided when using them, so you really should try for a balance and do your best to know what the situation calls for…

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      It’s definitely easier to sound more put together with the written word than the spoken. We can go back and edit it! I’d say to use hedges in situations that are confrontational or argumentative as Socrates and Franklin did. Doing that and focusing on the problem, not the person behind it, does a lot to lessen the offense the listener might incur. In other situations, they may not be as effective.


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