You Know

In my high school days, one of our teachers was very happy pontificating.  An older friend had had the same teacher, and she told me of one of these long soliloquies.  After finishing, he approached her and said he had seen that she had been busy taking notes – what had she taken away from it?  She told him that she had been counting the a-hems and he had 56.

Do you ever get distracted from listening for the content when somebody hems repeatedly, uses particular phrases, or speaks with an accent or in a certain tone of voice?

Some years back, I was part of an exercise where the tone of voice was so offensive that it stopped me in my tracks.  To me, this was jackboots speaking and no way was I going to take orders from that voice.  It was supposedly the voice of power as understood and expressed by the American facilitator.

Never in my life had I been addressed in that tone.  Sure, people in power had addressed me and given me assignments and given me feedback – sometimes, though rarely, very negative – but either they had been so upset it was obvious that they were out of control, or they had been speaking from the intent of me learning and growing from our interaction with respect for me as a human being and as a valued member of their team.

This was something else – pure cold disdain for the people addressed.  It had a visceral impact on me.  I heard afterwards that in the 18 years, the conference had so far been conducted in which this exercise was a part, this was the first time anybody had not done as they were told.  Too bad – grow some backbone.  It was an interesting exercise and I never figured out how I would have fared, had I followed orders.  (You can take a somewhat similar test by getting scored on The American Dream-score.  No tone of voice interfering.)

I was listening to a LinkedIn Live event where one of the speakers, you know, used “you know” as a filler.  It was wildly annoying, you know.  But, you know, it is also very difficult to get rid of, you know, habits in our speech – particularly as we are often a little stressed out when on mike, which doesn’t heighten our awareness.  (And then I went back to listening to myself on a podcast and, you know, I say that, too. Augh! Listen to yourself recorded. Highly instructive.)

Don’t we all have some habits we need to be made aware of – kindly – and work on if it pushes people we care about away, or hampers us in our professional or personal development? 

What are yours?

Does it change your engagement or impression that I put these last sentences as questions rather than as statements?  Did you notice that the “some” is superfluous – it is called a linguistic minimizer and, along with “a little” in the previous paragraph, such words serve to hedge because there may be people who are not stressed out by a mike or have no bad habits.  “May be” instead of “are” is also a hedge.  As are “I think”, “to me”, “in my opinion”.

Using questions, hedging, or speaking in a tone of voice called upspeak where even statements sound like questions, are all linguistic modes more used by women than men because we have been acculturated to be inclusive and non-threatening, and asking questions is more inclusive than making statements – or should I have written “aren’t asking questions more including than making statements?”?  The tools are also applied because, if not used, we are seen as opinionated, bossy, too assertive, and some dude is going to call us out on that what we said or wrote doesn’t apply to him.

Personally, I know I get triggered when somebody uses “in reality”, “the truth is” or similar overarching linguistic amplifiers.  Whose reality are you talking about?  “We” or “we all” can derail me because I start wondering if that really does apply to me, and while I wonder, I don’t listen to the speaker.  I used “we all” above in a question – which allows you to say “no, it doesn’t apply to me”.  To me, not hedging easily becomes bombastic – like the pontification I accused the teacher of.

Other phrases and tones than those here described can trigger me as well.  These days they trigger me to get curious about what it is they trigger and why.  Are these feelings something I should put before the other person, or do I have to work with myself as I figure out the why of my biases?  Fortunately, many very nice people in my network allow me to look beyond some of the American dialects that, when used by Hollywood, are not normally depicted as assets.  Many, like me, speak English with accents from abroad, and being steadily seen and heard, despite this, is a valuable gift our natural English-speaking friends give us.  It builds efficacy and agency not to be ignored.

A wide body of work by Dr. Deborah Tannen describes gendered speech and the impact it can have on listeners.  The standard next step is that women are told that they are not taken seriously if they don’t change their speaking patterns.  (Which, see above or the linked post, gets them called other names but doesn’t necessarily lead to greater impact.)

Could this, please, be a call to all of us to lean in rather than away when we get triggered by somebody’s speech pattern?  We could ask ourselves if the speaker really is as pompous or stupid or affected as they sound, or if we could overcome ourselves, listen to the content – and for the intent – and not let our biases rule our behaviors.

That said, I do reserve my rights to not take orders from jackboots.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Charlotte, in the past, I would have offered up “perfection” as the habit that had the potential to drive people away or at least crazy. Not so much anymore. It took standing before “The Last Supper” to rid me of that.

    Two truly irritating “filler” phrases you can add to your list: “sort of” and “kind of.” They were once used as qualifiers, minimizers/softeners, or the lead to a metaphor/simile, but now they are as ubiquitous as “the.”

    Nice piece, as always.

    • I hadn’t thought about those, Jeff, and I hope I will not have reasons to notice them.
      Another term that I try to avoid is “feel like”. We don’t feel like happy, we feel happy, no like needed; what comes after “feel like” is not a feeling but a thought.

  2. Wow – that was a very interesting article, Charlotte, and I thank and applaud you for bring these “simple but irritating speech patterns” to our attention.

    I must admit that in my earlier days, I too was young and cocky thinking that I could ‘pun’ on words even with/to those who did not quite understand or appreciate it.

    These days I use my ‘ethnicity, age, experience and humor to deflect such speech patterns by simply (and innocently) stating, “Pardon me, Sir/Madam, because of my ‘cultural differences’ I could not quite understand the real meaning”.. This was even used in high level managerial and ministerial meetings.

    99% of the time, the sentence and context were re-explained in a different tone and with clearer words. I am lucky – for me it was mission accomplished. *smile*.

    • Oh, the pun that must be made… I can relate, Jonathan. I touched on this dynamic in one of my first pieces here on BC360 about the Five Levels of Communication.

      Interestingly, Adam Grant touched on some of the other dynamics mentioned here in an opinion in New York Times on Aug. 6.