You’re at work and you’re a little concerned about how well you’ve been handling your latest project. So, when you overhear me describing you to someone else, you pause and listen in. I tell someone that you are “really not bad” at your job. You’re “not slow” to pick up new things and “not a slacker” when it comes to getting things done. In fact, you “weren’t a bad choice” for your current position.
These are all good things and they relieve your concerns that you’re failing to meet your organization’s standards. So, why don’t you feel better about hearing them?
What we sense intuitively but may not be aware of intellectually are the implications of negatively phrased comments like this. Yes, it would be more pleasant to be described as “quick” than “not slow”, but the negative phrasing implies that the speaker expected the opposite.
This was demonstrated in a study published this month by Camiel Beukeboom, Catrin Finkenauer and Daniël Wigboldus from the Netherlands. They asked participants to choose positive or negative ways to describe various behaviours performed by different kinds of people and found that participants consistently chose negative phrasing when they perceived the behaviours to be against type. For example, a soccer hooligan who shouted at a waiter was more often described as “rude” while a nurse who did the same thing was described as “not nice”.
The corollary to this, confirmed by another experiment in the same study, is that when we hear negatively phrased comments, we infer more about the person described than when we hear positively phrased comments. If Mary says, “Mike, the school dropout, is smart,” listeners are most likely to conclude that, well, Mike is probably smart. If she says, “Mike, the school dropout, isn’t stupid,” listeners are most likely to conclude that (1) Mike is probably smart – although not as smart as if Mary had phrased it positively, (2) Mary didn’t expect Mike to be smart, and (3) Mike isn’t likely to be as smart in the future. In other words, by using not-stereotype phrasing, we encourage maintenance of the stereotype.
You can see how important this could be if you’re trying to fight stereotypes. If you describe a woman’s rude behaviour as “not polite”, you’re leaving your listener with the underlying feeling that you expect women to be polite. If you describe an independent disabled person as “not at all helpless,” we hear that you think disabled people tend to be helpless.
It’s something to think about when communicating even if your personal goals don’t include fighting stereotypes. “We are not being unfair” suggests that someone thinks you are. “You’re not the problem” makes me wonder who believes I am.
So, if you ever catch me saying, “My readers are not idiots”, please give me a virtual smack. My readers are brilliant.