If I could say a word about that . . .

At PRI’s The World in Words, Learning to speak diplomatically is an interesting story about a training course at the United Nations called discourse strategies. It teaches speakers of other languages how to gain the speaker role in English in formal UN meetings. To become pro diplomats, these folks have to interrupt when others are speaking — one of those “necessary evils” that threaten social relations. Here’s an excerpt:

GALLAFENT: Teacher Raymonde Burke moves onto the next exercise. She asks the class to discuss a boilerplate magazine article about management styles.

BURKE: And over here then I’ve put some ways of interrupting that you’re welcome to use. “May I interrupt you for a moment,” or “sorry to interrupt but . . .”

GALLAFENT: On the whiteboard, a cheatsheet for being politely assertive in English. “If I could say a word about that,” or “I have a point to make here.”

MALE SPEAKER: If I may come at this point, do you believe that the lack of personal belief in the goals that you and your team are pursuing will influence the final outcome?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Yes, and if I may jump here, let me move to the second part of the question.

GALLAFENT: Interrupting is new to Ying Zhai, a Chinese staffer at the UN.

YING ZHAI: When we had meetings in China, mostly we listened to the speakers until the speakers say now is the time to bring up questions. But at the UN mostly people can interrupt. They can jump in and bring up ideas which normally it’s not the way in China.

GALLAFENT: If Ying knows how and when to interrupt, she won’t be at a disadvantage in her meetings. Raymonde Burke tells me that at the UN they teach four levels of politeness, from extremely wordy to extremely direct.

BURKE: In many of the cultures it’s so much more polite to weave a merry web before you come to the point, whereas American culture, of course, is much more direct and UN culture is maybe somewhere in between.

My leadership class has also been discussing levels of clarity and politeness for the past couple of weeks. Following sociolinguistic research, we refer to the tactics the UN diplomats are learning as ways to implement the on record politely communication strategy. That means being less direct and concise than with plain language but not ambiguous. There are two avenues to politeness:

  1. Attend to the audience’s ego (aka positive face). By saying “Yes . . .” the female speaker above signals agreement with the audience before she adds her own content. We call this the Be Positive tactic.
  2. Attend to the audience’s autonomy (aka negative face). When the female speaker says, “if I may jump in here . . .” she recognizes the autonomy of the audience. We call this the Be Pessimistic tactic.

The tactics used in the on record politely strategy are effective when there’s a threat to social relations but content is important, too. So they certainly seem appropriate for interrupting during a formal meeting at the UN. All of this interrupting makes me think about the value of listening. In fact, it is one of the communication strategies we also discuss. And it’s one of the most powerful tactics for attending to your audience’s ego.

Wish I had more time to explore this today. Especially in light of the debates for US President. (See linguist Deborah Tannen’s recent OpEd piece in the New York Times below.) But duty calls . . .

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