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Polite or Pushover? Indirect Speech in Business Writing
Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Luis Obispo , CA
Tuesday, August 27, 2019


If you send business emails, write blogs in a professional capacity, otherwise write in a professional context, I think this might be a really important topic for you you should read this post.


Copyeditors will find it and delete it. Writing coaches give you grief about it. My online course on revision includes a section on eliminating“weasel words” from your writing.

Yet, I admit that my first drafts include all sorts of hedges and apologies, especially when writing emails.

Until recently, I beat myself up about it. Then I read Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen, and everything became clearer.

Indirectness Has Its Uses

Deborah Tannen is a linguist and prolific author who studies how men and women communicate. In Talking from 9 to 5, she analyzes communication in the workplace, and it’s fascinating. (Read my review here.)

According to Tannen, indirect speech is a natural conversational technique that serves many purposes, including:

  • Leveling the playing field when someone with more authority in a situation asks something of a person with less authority
  • Inviting collaboration and contributions from the other person
  • Expressing politeness or courtesy

It’s not all bad. Expressing yourself indirectly doesn’t mean that you’re a pushover or insecure. Some cultures value indirect speech as a form of courtesy.

Writes Tannen, “I challenge the assumption that talking in an indirect way reveals powerlessness, lack of self-confidence, or anything else about the character of the speaker. Indirectness is a fundamental element in human communication.”

The success of any conversational ritual requires that both parties participate. To someone not attuned to that conversational style, indirectness might sound like prevarication, delay, uncertainty, or ignorance.

Why Women Should Worry

Research shows that women use indirect and tentative speech patterns more than men, although not by a huge margin. That’s the conclusion of a the study  “Women Are More Likely Than Men to Use Tentative Language, Aren’t They? A Meta-Analysis Testing for Gender Differences and Moderators” by Campbell Leaper and Rachael D. Robnett, in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

The authors examined multiple studies to demonstrate a small but statistically significant difference between genders.  (They state that women are “somewhat more likely” to use tentative language, clearly enjoying messing with tentative language here and in the title.)

Even if the differences are small, the perceptions are problematic.

When using indirect language, particularly in a work environment, women are more likely to be perceived as being unassertive or unsure of themselves.

These speech patterns carry a negative connotation–which is why I get upset with myself when I find them in my writing.

Indirectness in Writing

Our conversational styles often leak into our written words. If you’re writing a quick blog post or email to a colleague, typing as you think, you are more likely to deploy your usual conversational rituals. And that can hurt you on the job.

Your email recipient or blog reader lacks the conversational context and thus is likely to interpret your words literally. If you write, “This might be a stupid question,” they’ll might infer that you don’t know your facts.

Even if you’re writing an email to someone you know well and chat with frequently, remember that the recipient may forward it to others who lack that background.

Your words represent you when you are not present. Make sure they project the image you want them to.

What You Can Do About It

If you’re writing in a business context, take care that you don’t let innate speech patterns creep into your writing and weaken others’ perceptions of your capabilities. This is doubly important for women.

Pause before you send an email and scan it for signs of being tentative or unsure. A few small changes can have a big effect on the overall tone.

  • Look for qualifiers like “somewhat”, or hedges like “I think” or “I’m not sure.”
  • If you worry about the tone sounding impolite, leave in one or two flourishes and delete the rest.
  • Don’t put qualifiers or hedges around your expertise.

Be tentative about the weather, but confident about your job.

Related Reading

Talking from 9 to 5: A Book Review

A Quick Trick for Writing Better Emails

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Cuesta Park Consulting & Publishing publishes books and online courses for writers and marketing professionals. Books are available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats from a wide range of retailers. For more information, visit AnneJanzer.com.

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Name: Anne Janzer
Group: Cuesta Park Consulting
Dateline: San Luis Obispo, CA United States
Direct Phone: 4155176592
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