Mitigated Speech and Business Communication

DudeRecently finishing Outliers, I was really struck by the section on mitigated speech and airplane crashes. Gladwell‘s definition of mitigated speech on page 194 is:

Mitigated speech – any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.

In short, co-pilots may not communicate clearly with captains out of deference. They hint at things instead of speaking directly. Which leads to crashes and death. From page 193 of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book:

Fischer and Orasanu found that captains overwhelmingly said they would issue a command in that situation: “Turn thirty degrees right.” They were talking to a subordinate. They had no fear of being blunt. The first officers, on the other hand, were talking to their boss, and so they overwhelmingly chose the most mitigated alternative. They hinted.

…a hint is the hardest kind of request to decode and the easiest to refuse.

Gladwell goes on to explain this is more of a problem in cultures with, using Hofstede’s Dimensions, have what is called a higher “Power Distance Index“.

Power distance is concerned with attitudes towards hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. (pg 204)

A culture with a larger power distance index will have more hints. The west, and I’d agree speaking as an American, is “what linguists call a “transmitter orientation” – that is, it is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously.” (pg 216)

Working at a small company we have to train people how to write a decent email. The biggest part is helping people understand the burden of communication is ON YOU! Our email help file is linked  and the short version is:

  1. Subject Lines – all emails need a well articulated and relevant Subject Line.
  2. Links – ease of use changes behavior. (link it!)
  3. Numbered Lists – organize YOUR information. Bullets are evil.
  4. Short Paragraphs – with rare exceptions
  5. Nickel words – save them for scrabble

Going back to Gladwell, part of the solution for one airline was to switch to speaking English. By using a different language their learned subtleties of their native tongue were reduced thereby reducing accidents. Inter company email isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as piloting a jet. But nonetheless in a recession who has time for coworkers burning money with lazy communication skills?

And Gladwell isn’t alone. In the book The Influencer there is a case study on positive deviance for villages that did NOT suffer from Guinea Worm in Africa and Asia. The two “vital behaviors” that prevented the outbreak were:

  1. “In the worm-free village, the women … took a second pot, covered it with their skirts, and poured the water through their skirt into the pot, effectively straining out the problem-causing larvae.” (pg 360
  2. “The vital recovery behavior, then, was that friends and neighbors had to speak up when the Guinea worm sufferer was unwilling to do so. Only when the community took responsibility for compliance could the entire village protect itself from the failure of a single villager.” (pg 38)

Again we see the second critical issue is speaking up with candor. And basically turning your neighbor in for the good of the community. Communication is so critical airplanes crash and villages live in a painful cycle of disease without people who are willing to speak up.

And the importance of communication is more grave than ever. From The Rise of the Network Society pg 357.

Because culture is mediated and enacted through communication, cultures themselves – that is, our historically produced systems of beliefs and codes – become fundamentally transformed, and will be more so over time, by the new technological system.

Communication matters. And culture is part of that communication. I am unaware of any evidence that supports “hinting”, “deference” and other weak forms of communication as good for anything. Maybe in a medieval court, but it clearly has no place in modern society. Speak up, take care of the people you care about.