How to Fill the Air with Watered-Down Language

I was in a meeting several weeks ago when a high-ranking guy in a meeting said,

“We potentially should probably decide that…”

Excuse me?

We potentially should. Probably. Make a decision?

In other words, “We maybe MAYBE will decide on something. Maybe.”

Even worse, everyone else in the room nodded their heads in agreement like they were totally tracking with this guy. I was stunned.

A weeks later, I heard a different high-ranking dude say on a call: “We potentially might consider changing…”

I know there are some people who use big words instead of saying, “Um,” or, “Uh,” but this stuff is borderline absurd. On one hand, I find this kind of language rather weasel-y and unsettling. On the other hand, I kind of admire how these people can string together statements like these and have any credibility.

It reminds me of a great joke I read years ago: “Every once in a while, I like to masturbate big words into a sentence — even if I don’t know what they mean.”

In all seriousness, are these statements rooted in insecurity? Is it a process of trying to verbalize thoughts? How does one get to such a vague, hazy point (or lack of) where that kind of language materializes? I have thought about this for several weeks and I haven’t come to any solid conclusions.

What’s most interesting is these are high-ranking people. Like, six-figure salary people with subordinates.

In one of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, there’s a notion of “freely contributing to the shared pool of meaning in a non-violent way.” In other words, people should be able to say what they want in a conversation with no lash-back. I have not gotten the sense during my meetings that anyone was resistant to new ideas, so it’s really interesting to me that these kinds of vagueries find an accepted place in conversation.

And, yes, I’ve tried increasing awareness of my own language to ensure I’m not just being self-righteous.

What do you think? Have you encountered this? Any ideas where this watered-down language comes from?

Author of “Clueless at The Work” and founder of Make Weird Music. I write about management, music, and technology. Mesa, AZ, USA.

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