The XX Factor

No Offense, but Verbal Tee-Ups Aren’t Actually Polite

“Now, don’t take this the wrong way … "

Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images

I just want you to know that this blog post will be about verbal tee-ups, the preface-y phrases—“I’d like to say,” “To be perfectly honest,” “No offense, but,” “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but”—that either drive you crazy or allow you to get away with conversational murder. In the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Elizabeth Bernstein reviewed the uses and abuses of these contrivances: They often soften what’s coming, obscure meaning and, at times, “signal that bad news or … dishonesty” is on the horizon.

For example, you can create ambiguity by introducing your utterance with “This is just to say … ,” which draws attention to the speech act and away from whether what follows is true. (Only William Carlos Williams knows whether that hedge got him off the hook for eating the plums in the icebox.) Or you can distance yourself from your own observation by prefacing it with “Please understand … ” (“Please understand that the plums are gone.”) You can even—and this seems rude—try to explicitly manage someone’s reaction to your words: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but … ” or “Don’t get mad, but … ” or “OK, don’t freak out, but … ” (but there are NO MORE PLUMS, which is to say, I ATE THEM ALL).

While Bernstein seems less interested in passing judgment than in drawing a cartography, she quotes language experts who urge people to cut back on their qualifiers. “If you are feeling a need to use [tee-ups] a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people,” said Ellen Jovin, who founded a communication-skills training firm in New York. And James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, cautioned Bernstein that “Politeness is another word for deception.”

Indeed, such flourishes can ring hollow. Is anyone truly comforted by the “No offense” at the beginning of “No offense, but I think you’re the worst”? Sometimes, the shiny feather on an arrow can distract you from the barb; often, it just makes it hurt more.  

Of course, politeness has social and moral value—but maybe the problem with tee-ups is that they aren’t actually polite. At this point, we recognize them as a kind of assassin’s uniform, the transparent frocks you throw over cruel intentions. Phrases like “I’m only saying” and “Please know that” draw attention to the speaker’s effort to be socially appropriate. When they preface a neutral statement, they can make the speaker sound formal, conscientious, or sophisticated. Snuck in before a negative comment, though, they highlight your friend’s noble struggle to remain civil in the face of your stupidity. Or they can make an insult seem that much more deliberate. I just mean that you probably shouldn’t have ordered another drink. Not only have you drunk enough, but your concerned consort means to call you out on it.

Though Bernstein says that men and women use tee-ups with equal frequency (there have been no major studies of the issue, she notes), research shows that women hedge more in general. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: In her book Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture, Julia T. Wood explains that such “tentative communication opens the door for others to respond and express their opinions,” in contrast to the air-sealed statements of fact that often characterize male speech. Answering the Wall Street Journal story in Jezebel, Madeleine Davies observes that she’s seen more women teeing up than men—which matches my personal experience. Yet I wonder why we do it when we must know subtler ways to simultaneously express and disguise the cold, dark inferences of our hearts. I’m just saying.