Fuzzy talk vs. straight talk

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — In our new political climate, people have become more opinionated and more rigidly stuck to their beliefs. There seems to be more contentiousness; what used to be an exchange of ideas has become an effort to talk a protagonist into agreeing with an opposite position. The result is adversarial.

The way people use language expresses two things: how they feel about themselves and how they feel about others. In order to avoid any misunderstandings, some people have resorted to ambiguous expressions—what I call fuzzy talk. We have become afraid to talk straight or speak our truths honestly. We don’t want to upset, offend, or step on someone’s toes. We so fear being seen as aggressive, pushy, opinionated, demanding, or critical, that we often pussy-foot.

On one hand, I applaud our sensitivity to other people’s feelings; on the other hand, the price is verbal evasion. We start our sentences with qualifications: “I may be wrong, but…” or “You may disagree…” We end our statements with question marks: “Right?” “Ok?” If we’re so unsure of what we want to say, why should anyone listen?

There are indeed times we feel tentative. No one knows exactly what we know and what we don’t or where we are coming from. Starting sentences with “Isn’t it true that…?” or “You must agree with…” are really strong opinions couched in tentative form, and therefore misleading.

Fuzzy talk is an expression of our fear to speak honestly. If we’re unclear, then we can’t be pinned down to an opinion or recommendation. If we’re uncommitted in our language, then we can’t be blamed if anything goes wrong.

Responding with sentiments such as “great” as a global statement or “interesting” does not give the person an indication of what we really think; generalized responses are not helpful. It is important to be specific about what we liked and disliked and why in order for real communication and problem solving to take place. Say what you mean as long as it can be heard the way you meant it by the other party.

One of the biggest difficulties most of us have is saying a clear “no,” “I can’t,” “it won’t work,” “I disagree,” etc. Instead, we say “not now,” “maybe later,” “I’d love to, but…,” “I wish I could…” This of course makes people believe that you will—next time—and so the game continues until either they give up in frustration or you do it out of guilt.

Communication in organizations is watered down to ineffectual levels when people protect themselves by not speaking out, not asking important questions, not making suggestions, or disagreeing when necessary. They rob their organizations of a valuable resource: their wisdom.

How often have many of us had a thought we were mulling over, not quite ready to speak about, when someone else expressed it. We then feel badly about having missed a chance to contribute. However, for people to become risk-takers, the leadership must recognize and value them even when the outcome did not turn out as well as expected. If only positive results are allowed, then nothing new, original or creative will be attempted.

Some organizations value harmony and agreement at any cost. If going along with the boss or with the prevalent opinion is rewarded, then no one will take a chance on expressing a contrary opinion or suggest a different way of dealing with an issue. Actually soliciting different points of view, insisting on straight-forward, direct communication is a skill everyone needs to learn It’s also a more productive way of communicating between peers, friends, and family members.

They way we use language will not only tell others how confident we feel, but how acceptable we believe our message will be to others. Communication is indeed a two-way street. It expresses both who we are and the culture that can accept us as we are.

© Natasha Josefowitz. This article appeared initially in the La Jolla Village News. You may comment to [email protected]


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