Recently I had very interesting interactions with two strangers. One person contacted me through LinkedIn and the other person contacted me through Twitter. I tend to get a lot of emails and direct messages and I make it a point, unless it clearly is someone who wants to sell me something, to respond to all messages. One person started with LinkedIn message and then started texting – no problem…my cell number is clearly listed on my LinkedIn headline. But they kept telling me how honest they were in the midst of their communication. “I am honest, “I will be honest”, “Just trying to be honest”. Oy vey…it was too much and my mind’s warning alarm went off. The other contact came through Twitter and this person – although he contacted me for consulting opportunities – kept telling me he was “not a creep”. This went on for three days. Every third or fourth message he would tell me he “wasn’t creepy”, he “hoped I didn’t think he was a creep” and that he was definitely interested in hiring me for a consulting project. Unfortunately, that comment would be followed by something that was decidedly creepy [for example, asking me what my “love language” was so he knew how to work with me. When I explained I had zero idea of what he was talking about, he sent me a link to test for it.]. It was at that point, I put an end to the messaging and explained that I had a firm “no jerks policy” and was currently engaged in other projects, but thanked him for his interest.
In 2011-2012 I worked with an “executive” who also – always – had to announce how “honest” he was. The actual truth is, he was one of the least honest and honorable people I have worked with in my career. And I had exactly the same feeling with the ‘honest dude’ and the ‘creepy dude’. So, after these experiences over the last couple of weeks, I have been hyper-sensitive to these verbal “tee-ups” and how frequently people use them as a preamble to excuse some bizarre personality flaw | behavior.
‘THE LADY DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH, METHINKS’
Growing up – I loved reading Shakespeare. I would – weekly – read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. Sonnet 116 is my favorite poem. And I loved reading Hamlet as well. And I can clearly remember having a conversation with my parents about the line ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’. The dinner conversation took a turn to politics and religion to explain the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this amazing phrase – but at nine years old, I got the point.
For context, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” is a line from the c. 1600 play Hamlet, where it is spoken by Queen Gertrude in response to the insincere overacting of a character in the play, the Murder of Gonzago. As Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius and others watch the play-within-the-play, the Player Queen, representing Gertrude, declares in flowery language that she will never remarry if her husband dies. Hamlet then turns to his mother and asks her, “Madam, how like you this play?”, to which she replies,”The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, meaning that the Player Queen’s protestations of love and fidelity are far too excessive to be believed.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF VERBAL “TEE-UPS”
“I’m always honest”, “I’m not creepy” are part of a larger catalog of qualifiers people offer:
- “Don’t take this the wrong way…”
- “I want you to know…”
- “I’m just saying…”
- “I hate to be the one to tell you this…”
- “I’m not saying…” [as in the phrase, “I’m not saying we should stop seeing each other, but…” ]
- “I am only telling you this because I love you…”
- “As far as I know…”
- “To be perfectly honest…”
- “Can I be honest with you?”
Language experts have textbook names for these phrases:”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” taken alone, they express a straight-forward thought. At first, they may seem harmless, probably just formal or polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker is on it’s way and you should probably buckle up.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Dr. James W. Pennebaker, the Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts and Professor of Psychology at UT Austin who studies natural language use, group dynamics, and personality in both laboratory and real world settings found that “Politeness is another word for deception. The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.” In other words, “if you’re going to lie, it’s a good way to do it—because you’re not really lying. So it softens the blow,” Dr. Pennebaker says.
Of course, it’s generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. For this reason they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications.
As this relates and impacts business communications, “Awareness about image management is increased any time people put things into print, such as in email or on social networks,” says Jessica Moore, department chair and assistant professor at the College of Communication at Butler University, Indianapolis. “Thus people often make caveats to their statements that function as a substitute for vocalized hedges.” And people practice this hedging—whether in writing or in speech—largely unconsciously, Dr. Pennebaker says. “We are emotionally distancing ourselves from our statement, without even knowing it,” he says.
Objectively, we all have our own set of verbal idiosyncrasies. We pause at certain moments, use vernacular that is confusing to some, fill in a sentence with extra words, or qualify a statement to make it sound more honest. Most people often use “tee-ups” before a conversation starts that attempts to evade the consequences of the oncoming comment.
BEWARE OF THESE STATEMENTS
I do believe there are people who highly-prize honesty and try hard to be honest most of the time. However, research suggests that most people have a moral fudge-factor. So I have a hard time believing someone who’s constantly announcing how honest he or she is all the time.
Two big challenges present themselves when people use these verbal qualifiers to introduce what they want to say:
The first challenge is in using “tee-ups” like, “Don’t take this the wrong way…”. I use to immediately put up my defenses and tune out the person who opened a sentence like this. People tend to shut down and cease hearing when we start a sentence with a social performative. We know it’s not good news and we – generally – don’t want to hear it.
Today, I am fascinated by this type of verbal vamping and frequently have conversations with people who use them about why they felt the need to,
- Were they not confident in what they were saying to just…say it?
- Did I give the impression that I was unable to digest their feedback or guidance that I needed the blow softened?
- Or do they need to feel removed from the responsibility of their statement when they use an opening frame like this when giving their feedback or guidance?
The second challenge lies in the “doth protest too much, methinks” category. When protestations are so excessive they are impossible to be believed – the listener ends up absolutely believing the opposite of what the speaker is proclaiming they are not. The irony is the pretentiousness upon which the speaker built his “honest” or “not creepy” platform. They easily dismiss their behavior as failed and flawed once they are outed as dishonest or creepy and yet claim to have zero tolerance for behaviors of those people with whom they see these traits present. [For instance, the super creepy ‘not creepy” guy would follow up his declaration with the statement “I hope you’re not crazy“].
Simply declaring to be “honest” or “not creepy” relieved these people of any responsibility of human decency. Any transgressions they may display that are in opposition to their words – from their perspective – were quickly and easily erased because of how they aren’t actually that way and it was just a moment of weakness or failure. The ultimate show of arrogance and audacity comes when they believe they have offered their apologies for the isolated incident and continue with their nonsense as if everything is normal and we are expected to, once again, believe them.
People hide behind their declared virtue(s) a lot in both personal and professional settings. When I hear it once in a conversation, I take note of it but I reason it may be just a verbal idiosyncrasy. But when I hear it two, three, four times from the same person during a single day or even a single conversation, that is when I recognize I need to be cautious of this person. Planned, long-term deception and cover-ups, require a lot of energy, thought, and intent. These people who profess that they are or aren’t something during the course of normal conversation are usually setting you up for what is to come from your interactions with them.
What I have learned is that these people share in common, besides a profound lack of a moral center, is their belief that a confession and admission of guilt sets them apart from other human beings, and places them back in the good graces of those they’ve lied to, offended, or outright wronged. They are usually exactly what they claim they aren’t and that they abhor in others. And that is a dangerous person to keep the company of.