Language communicates more than content

We use language to communicate content. But we also use it to manage social relations. And we have to do both within the same message. Watch this 10-minute RSA Animate video of Steven Pinker‘s Language as a Window into Human Nature to explore this topic.

The need to manage social relations explains why plain language, although critical for clear communication, is only one strategy.

My leadership communication students have been discussing the range of strategies. Here’s a simplified explanation of how these are covered in Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader.

On record plainly means being direct and brief.

  1. To warn the public you say, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “I want to have sex with you”

This strategy is effective when content is king (and that might be the case either because there is no threat to social relations in your message or because you don’t care about social relations in this message). Sentence (1) is effective because the warning is more important than any relationship consequences of your message (say, with leaders in Tunisia). Sentence (2) is effective only if you don’t care about the consequences of your offer on your future relationship with the addressee if its refused.

Off record means being deliberately ambiguous.

  1. To warn the public you say,”The Department of State believes U.S. citizens could find better places to travel than Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “Do you want to come up and see my etchings?”

This strategy is effective only when social relations are threatened and that threat is more important than content. I can’t think of many situations in which sentence (1) would be effective since the warning is critical.  Sentence (2), however, is effective if your offer may be declined and you’re concerned about how that will affect your future relationship. The downside is that your offer can easily be misinterpreted or ignored because of the level of content ambiguity.

On record politely means being indirect and less concise without being ambiguous.

  1. To warn the public you say,”The Department of State reminds U.S. citizens of the dangers of travel to Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “How do you feel about sex after dinner?”

This final strategy is effective when there’s a threat to social relations but content is important, too. Sentence (1) would be effective if you want to recognize addressees’ autonomy in making their travel plans but also convey the warning.  Sentence (2) would be effective if your offer may be declined and you’re concerned about the impact on your future relationship. Your offer can be ignored but it is less ambiguous than the off record version.

Pros, including anyone who wants to lead others, sometime convey messages that threaten social relations (called “necessary evils”). That means they must learn to use multiple strategies and to identify the best strategy for each message.

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