More Words that Lose Hearts


Recall those conversations or speeches you’ve heard where your initial feelings about the speakers were positive but the longer they went on, the less believable you found them. Give your unconscious mind a pat on the back, because it was well and truly on the case. It was most likely picking up a host of linguistic cues that denote lack of commitment, the possibility of deception, and other credulity stretching devices. Below are some of the more common examples that induce what is called incredulity creep, the gradual wearing away of credibility through unintentional admissions of dishonesty or, in some cases, habitual use of verbal crutches:

Honestly, truly, really, certainly, no kidding!

Think about it for a moment, why would anyone preface or end a statement of truth with one of the above words? People usually take direct path in expressing the truth. Any deviation, surely, is significant.

The statement “Honestly, I have explored every avenue, and on balance this is the best option.” is not the shortest way of expressing what the speaker believes is the truth. If uttered without any prior questioning of her honesty, the statement can be seen as a significant cue of sensitivity. In truth, you could expect the speaker to say something like, “Out of all the options I looked at, this is the best one.”

The truth, as you inherently know, requires no heralding of its arrival. In the first example, the speaker may well know that what she is about to say is, in essence, dishonest, and so prefaces her remark with a protestation of honesty in order to deceive those listening. This is a common pattern of language identified by specialists in the scientific analysis of content for deception.

You should avoid prefacing your comments with words such as the above. Ensure you do not use them as verbal crutches, because you will inadvertently trigger sensitivity to deception at the unconscious level of your listeners.

Believe me, believe it or not

“Believe me, there’s no person better equipped to do this job than me.” Now, what do imagine is the motive of the speaker in prefacing his remark with an appeal for you to believe him? Chances are you have already intuited that the speaker wants you to make an immediate decision for fear of the discovery of people who are indeed much better equipped to do the job than him.

In most contexts “Believe me”, and “believe it or not” (remembering that “not” cannot be processed unconsciously) are clues of deceptive behaviour or, in some cases, insecurity or doubtfulness about the veracity of one’s statements. People who have confidence in the truth or validity of their sentences are rarely observed to introduce a perceived truth with an appeal to believe.

“Believe it or not” in some instances can be interpreted as an expression of indifference to listeners. It can also be intuited by people as a means of feigning nonchalance or even-handedness to cover up a strong desire for a lie, or, in some cases, a truth, to be embraced. Avoid these expressions at all costs and develop a habit of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Naturally, obviously, of course, clearly, it goes without saying

Often, the best deep level interpretations people make of these words are that the speaker is prone to condescension or showing off what they know. One of the easiest ways to lose an audience’s sympathy is to demonstrate a superiority complex through linguistic cues such as the above.

In some contexts, speakers use the above words in an attempt to convince listeners that the ideas etc. that follow are legitimate or normal practice. Don’t you? And, can you not sense at some level when a speaker is using these terms to deceive or win you over on the basis that they’re simply repeating common knowledge?

Words like “obviously”, “clearly”, etc., in some fields of linguistics are termed ‘lost performatives’. If you find yourself on the receiving end of statements like the above, recover the lost performative by asking “Obvious to whom?” or “Clear to Whom?” and notice the interesting replies you elicit.

(c) Desmond Guilfoyle 2004 - 2006


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