The way we deliver our message has a big effect on how it is received. Not only do we receive the message, but we receive the way it is presented or “wrapped”. It’s the whole package. How we say things adds another layer of meaning to the message. Teaching about the delivery of a message in ESL classes adds a lot of value for students.
Most of the classes I teach are aimed at participants who are at level CLB 6 and above. These students understand the value of tone in a language. I often get asked if I think certain sentences sound too strong, or too direct. As a native speaker I have a feel for it, but often second language learners don’t. Since they can’t necessarily feel how their speech is perceived, they need to learn strategies that native speakers use, mostly unconsciously, but that have the effect of softening speech.
The techniques we use to soften language are often very subtle, yet go a long way to lessening the impact. Here are a couple of strategies that second language learners can implement to soften speech:
Not + Positive Adjective
Using a negative adjective, such as impossible, has a very authoritarian quality. Imagine your supervisor asking you if you can work overtime on a project and you respond: “That’s impossible because….”. You are not only sending the message that you are unable to do it, but the way it’s wrapped adds the extra meaning that you don’t want to do it. Using not + a positive adjective sends a negative message with a positive tone. The response: “That’s not possible because ….” contains a subtext that says: “I’m willing but there is something that is prohibiting me from doing it”. It’s a subtle (but important) difference in the delivery of the message.
There is a default meaning, (in our culture), around using a word that indicates a problem. The meaning defaults to something large. So, if I say I have a problem, the listener will assume that it is a big problem.
To convey the message that my problem is manageable, I need to indicate it is not a great problem by quantifying it. In other words, I could say: “I have a slight problem” or one that causes “a bit of trouble”. The message is delivered in a less alarming way by using a restrictive adjective or adjective phrase, especially in a situation where the problem is not insurmountable.
Restrictive adjectives or adjective phrases can be used with words in any situation that describes a difficulty, issue, predicament, complication, or dilemma.
These suggestions are small but directly affect how language is packaged. The ability to use them adds some finesse to a learner’s usage of language, and allows them to deliver the intended message in a way that will be received more positively by the listener.
Do you know of any other examples we commonly use to “soften” language in Canada?