"Tee-Ups" and "Performatives"

An NPR episode described "tee-ups" and "performatives," phrases that sound polite but signal bad news. "With all due respect," "To be honest," "No offense, but," "I don't mean to be rude, but,"and "Let me be perfectly clear" may sound nice, but they are deceptive, according to experts.

A professor of psychology gave the example of "I just want you to know that," which could mean that what comes next is true or not. "We set up this lie, but in a weird way," he said.

The interviewer asked if these phrases could have a purpose, which is to couch difficult messages. Without them, she wondered if we would be left with just blunt phrases.

"I can't tell you how much I love you," for example, could be interpreted as "I don't even know whether I like you." You can't really evaluate what the person feels.

Asked whether cultural or geographic differences exist, one guest theorized that people in the corporate world use them quite often. Another thought that they are used across groups, but the phrases may differ (although the guests weren't aware of research to support their views).

When a caller asked whether we should just find a better way to express what we mean rather than use these phrases, which he considers passive-aggressive. But should we just say, "You need to lose weight" or "Your talk was lousy"?

Discussion Starters:

  • Have you used these phrases? If so, for what purpose and in what circumstances?
  • We could argue that these phrases just soften a bad-news message. What do you think?