Most people don’t realise how they sound to others.
The words you choose could hurt your credibility without you even knowing it.
An obvious one is “like,” but there are less obvious words and phrases that might be tripping you up.
We spoke with Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College, and Deborah Tannen, author of “Talking From 9 To 5: Women and Men at Work” and a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, to find out which words undermine your credibility, why we use them, and how we can stop.
Hedges: “Sort of,” “kind of,” “pretty much,” and “maybe”
Tannen says these are the words you use when you don’t want to say something outright.
According to Fought, using hedges may make you seem less confident, which can be especially detrimental at work. “We don’t want someone working for our company who is so insecure and who won’t be able to make decisions because they’re paralysed with self-doubt,” she says.
Intensifiers: “Really,” “definitely,” “absolutely,” and “totally”
According to Fought, overusing these can have the opposite effect of intensifying. “It weakens your credibility in some ways because if you have to tell us how really, really, really great this trip was, maybe it wasn’t that great,” she says.
Tannen says intensifiers can also make a speaker seem overly dramatic. “You run into the risk of seeming to be so over-the-top that you lose credibility for another reason,” she says. “You seem to be exaggerating; you seem hysterical.”
Fillers: “Like,” “um,” “er,” and “ah”
Fought refers to these words — or sounds — as “discourse markers.” “It’s a little word that we use to buy time or space, and it’s really common,” she says.
Tannen says fillers are automatic in our speech and are present in every language. “We all have automatic ticks when we speak,” she says. “There’s an impulse to put something in that space when you stop [talking].”
If you’re starting a majority of your sentences with “sorry,” you may want to put an end to that habit. According to Fought, constantly saying “sorry” can cause employers to question your abilities. “You don’t want someone who is so overly apologetic for everything that you feel like they’re not going to take ownership of their ideas,” she says.
Why we use them
While we might think we’re having great, deep conversations, the truth is much of what we say is meaningless. “A large percentage of the words we use don’t mean anything,” Fought explains. “We spend a lot of time talking in ways that don’t really convey content.”
According to Tanner, our manner of speaking conveys who we are to others. “In almost all settings, we’re not just communicating information, we’re communicating impressions of ourselves,” she says. “Anything that makes the impression more authoritative is going to work to your advantage.”
What’s more, the words we use are often based on what the people around us say. “We develop styles that sound to us appropriate,” Tanner says. “You want to sound like your friends. You want to sound like people you identify with.”
And, perhaps ironically, in an attempt to make our statements sound more authoritative, we might add on these extra words for emphasis. “We want to help our statements,” Fought says. “It’s like our statements are little messages to the world, and these words like ‘literally’ or ‘really’ are little bows that we put on them to dress them up to go out there so that they will be more successful.”
How to stop
Both Fought and Tanner advise listening to yourself and developing an awareness of what you’re saying.
“Take some time to listen to your own speech, have friends give you feedback, record yourself doing an interview, and listen back to it and see what you’re doing,” Fought suggests. “In isolation, none of these things are terrible, but if they’re happening too much, it can weaken your credibility.”
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