The Whole Package

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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
Image source: Gwen Zeldenrust

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.

Restrictive Adjectives

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. 

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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? 

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


4 thoughts on “The Whole Package”

  1. Similar to the not + positive adjective, it was suggested to a friend (whose first language was Afrikaans) that she tell her staff to “remember” to do things, rather than to “not forget” to do things.

    1. Hi Brett,

      Thanks for your comment. The subject of appropriate language structure is very detailed and intricate. Choosing the appropriate structure to fit the context is not always “black and white.'” It certainly is a subject that requires more discussion. When you tell someone to “remember” to do something your language is more direct than when you say “don’t forget.” When choosing a particular language structure you have to consider the context. Perhaps when a supervisor is giving directions to staff they need to be more direct. I think that really depends on the culture of the particular workplace. More indirect = more polite, so really context needs to be considered.

  2. An interesting post Gwen. Two thoughts come to mind.
    First, do you think that native speakers know the difference and therefore choose whether we intentionally want to soften a message. For example (not possible vs. impossible). My other question relates to writing. Do you think that the impact is greater in spoken English as opposed to in written form? I will be teaching Report Writing in a corporate setting in the Fall.

    1. Hi Patrice. Thanks for your thought provoking questions.

      I think that native speakers feel the difference when language is more/less soft than they expect it to be in a given situation. Most native speakers, who aren’t language teachers, probably would attribute the unexpected language structure to a difference in attitude rather than language. Native speakers learn these kind of pragmatic strategies implicitly and therefore aren’t always able to articulate why they consider a particular structure appropriate or not. However, most native speakers are able to feel when they need to soften and do it quite naturally.

      In response to your second question, spoken and written language differ in terms of how they are used and the way our brain processes them . Written language is more direct, concise and analytical than spoken language. Most of my research about cultural use of language has focused on verbal interaction. However, I do believe it is possible to be too direct when writing based on my own experience. It would be a very interesting area to research!!

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