I’m grabbing this week’s randomness from a chapter out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. If you’ve read it, you may remember this. Even so, you may not. It wasn’t one that brought forward any of Gladwell’s now-prominent points. A tidbit, really. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I read it, at least six or seven years. For some reason though I’m not quite sure, this was the thing that captured my interest the most.
In the chapter dubbed ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,’ Gladwell dissects why planes crash. It’s a fascinating chapter in a fascinating book, for a lot of reasons. In it, he touches on everything from the importance of company culture, to how the typical crash involves precisely seven consecutive human errors, to how the crew talks to one another. That was the thing, the tidbit, that stuck with me.
Linguists, Gladwell explained, call it ‘mitigated speech.’ Wikipedia defines it as ‘a linguistic term describing deferential or indirect speech inherent in communication between individuals of perceived High Power Distance.’ In looking at airplane crashes, the difference in rank among the captain and others in the cockpit is key. In real life, however, mitigated speech is everywhere.
‘We should, you know, try going around this traffic by getting off at one of the exits up ahead.’
‘I’d love to see the movie ‘The Joker’ sometime.’
‘What if we have chicken for dinner?’
Granted, none of those will result in a plane crash, thankfully. Just as thankfully, and rightly so, we show respect everyday in our relationships with our spouse, parents, elders. The reason this stuck with me, I think, was by making me self-aware of how I spoke in different situations. The power of communication of course is huge, and this seemed like a really, really simple way to develop into a better communicator. Not avoiding mitigating my speech, but rather being aware of the situation and how and when I choose to use it. When it seemed appropriate to give a command, versus state an obligation, or a suggestion, preference, or heck, when I should just ask a question. Like, to my wife, can we have chicken for dinner?